Rugby League: Authorities found wanting

Dave Hadfield sees hope and concern as he looks back at the rugby league Lions' tour
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The Independent Online
The least successful touring side Great Britain has ever sent away arrives back home today, bracing itself for the inevitable inquest and recriminations.

Its members will not be able to argue a defence against the main charge. Their record in New Zealand was dismal; one draw and five defeats, including a 3-0 whitewash in the Tests.

But before demanding that too many heads should roll, it would be wise to consider the words of Denis Betts, unquestionably Britain's man of the series.

"Our record might be bad, but we have the makings of a very good team by the time we play Australia next year," Betts said. "We had too many players carrying injuries to make a contest of the last Test, but a lot of players stood up to be counted in a difficult situation.

"We want to keep a young side like this together and treat them right."

It is easier for a player whose own form has been so outstanding to see a silver lining lurking in the gloom, but Betts has not been the only light shining through the clouds. Others picked out for special mention by their coach, Phil Larder, have been Andy Farrell, Stuart Spruce, Kris Radlinski and Daryl Powell.

Farrell, a young but highly conscientious captain, is another who can reflect that he could hardly have done any more. Spruce has emerged from a shaky start in Papua New Guinea as a world-class full-back and Radlinski and Powell - at opposite ends of their respective Test careers - were, until they both played despite being injured in the final Test, a solid pair of centres.

Others, such as Keiron Cunningham, Paul Sculthorpe and Iestyn Harris, will be none the worse for the realisation that Test rugby is a big step up from their normal club fare.

Add a couple of the players who stayed at home to this nucleus - minus Powell, who has retired from international rugby after seven years as an underrated but utterly reliable contributor to the cause - and there is indeed, as Betts says, the makings of a good side.

The urge to become too depressed over the playing side of the tour should be resisted.

Off-field aspects are something else entirely. It was inevitable that a tour taking in PNG, Fiji and New Zealand but not Australia, would lose money - estimates of how much go as high pounds 750,000 - what came as a shock was that both country's administrations should perform so abysmally during Super League's first real chance to show that it can organise international competition.

"I'm a firm believer in international football, but it's got to be done right," Larder said. "There were aspects of this tour we can't be proud of and it all comes down to finance.

"I still feel that this New Zealand side was one of the best they have had. The first two Tests could have gone either way and were tremendously entertaining. For them to be so badly promoted and watched by so few people is a travesty."

The New Zealand Rugby League president, Graham Carden, whose company was also in charge of that promotion, held a press briefing last week on the theme of "not my fault".

On quite whose fault it was, he was less forthcoming, but it is a fact that rugby league in New Zealand has slipped badly in relation to its bigger, stronger, cousin, rugby union, over the last 18 months.

Despite the quality of much of the play, this series will have done nothing to convince a sceptical public that League - and Super League in particularly - is big time.

The British League, of course, did its best to downgrade the tour. Sending almost half the players home early in a fit of pique was a public relations disaster, only exacerbated by the immediate recall of one of them and the refusal of another to reorganise his travel plans yet again in order to stay on.

When Larder had to send to Australia for Tulson Tollett to return in order merely to spend the day of the last Test with the squad as back- up in case of an emergency, the theme song of this tour became "Twenty- Four Hours From Tulson".

A thoroughly good bunch of blokes had, by this stage, learned the knack of laughing at the nonsense going on around them.

n The Great Britain coach, Phil Larder, is planning major rebuilding in his new club job at Sheffield Eagles. Larder intends to sign three high-profile overseas players, and to use outgoing transfers to finance the acquisition of British players he has in his sights. Larder said that the former Sheffield coach, Gary Hetherington, was interested in taking several players to Leeds where Hetherington is the new chief executive.