British rugby league has become accustomed to raking over the Ashes after yet another series defeat by Australia, but the feeling this week is not quite as desolate as it has been on some occasions since those mythical cinders were last brought home in 1970.
After all, a severely depleted Great Britain side won one Test in some style and competed bravely in another. On the broader front, coach David Waite is right to argue that this has been a good year overall for British international sides at all age levels, even if calling it the best ever is pitching it a little high.
There is a respectable case to be made that, if two of Keiron Cunningham, Sean Long and Adrian Morley had been available, the Ashes would have been at Red Hall now. Perhaps, if Waite and his side had not been so psyched-out in advance by the refereeing of Bill Harrigan in the second Test, they would be there anyway, but Great Britain beat themselves that day.
Some young players – Stuart Fielden, Kevin Sinfield – have grown in stature. Some old ones – Gary Connolly, Mike Forshaw – did more than could have been reasonably expected. Others, who might never be truly Test-class players, did their best.
But the reservoir of players with enough dedication – let alone enough natural ability – remains depressingly shallow. There has been no fuss made about it, but three players who did not make the side for the third Test now have black marks against their names because they did not conduct themselves as they should have in camp. They have shown that they are not ready to join the serious professionals, the Farrells, Sculthorpes and Radlinskis.
Waite himself remains a puzzle. There is simply no doubting his technical knowledge or attention to detail, but there are a couple of major drawbacks. His communication with the outside world is simply dreadful, partly because he cannot be bothered flattering outsiders by pretending that he thinks they know anything. It makes you wonder how much better he gets through to players, not all of whom are technical masterminds.
Waite's tendency to play ducks and drakes with his team selection has put backs up – in the camp as well as outside it – but that could be a case of information overload. There is evidence in favour of everyone being in the side, an argument for everyone being left out. What looks like deceit might just be indecision.
He let himself get wound up about Harrigan – to the detriment of the team – but there is one charge of which Waite is not guilty: that, as an Australian, he does not care enough about Great Britain winning. The coach might seem a cold fish at times, but at Wigan on Saturday night, when the game was finally up, he was choked with emotion. A bit more of that emotion applied to the preparation of his teams would be no bad thing.
It might seem churlish to say this after the tour was rescued from the brink, but – off the field – it has exposed the lack of leadership in the game, nationally and internationally.
Even the tour that was originally called off was not as it should have been: a mere seven games, including a timid bill of three Tests at small, northern venues. It was a disgrace that all three were not sold out.
Not for the first time, advance promotion was poor, and there were some extra problems. Before the second Test, the Rugby League said that demand for tickets was "going through the roof". It had to. The phone system had seized up and 5,000 top-priced tickets went unsold.
Then there was the fiasco over the referee for the final Test. For an international governing body to be reduced to drawing lots to decide such an issue reveals a game still without a rudder. A meaningful international federation would have ruled on that before a pass was thrown, but that is something rugby league does not possess.Reuse content