Rugby League: Britain lacking even the traditional virtues

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The Independent Online
Great Britain 14 Australia 38

It would be almost comforting to say that it was the same old story. Unfortunately, the old story usually includes Great Britain beating Australia at Wembley - at least in the matches that do not carry final significance - and there was only the briefest period of play on Saturday when that plot line looked like being perpetuated.

It was not so much that Great Britain played badly. Looked at in isolation, some of the ball movement and general competence was well above the level of some of the embarrassing encounters with the same opposition. But there was definitely something missing. Perhaps the lack of atmosphere at a half-full Wembley had something to do with it, but there was no bite in a toothless British performance.

Nobody wants the national side to go out and try to knock heads off, but some more raw aggression would not have gone amiss. The players themselves certainly felt that afterwards, and their coach, Andy Goodway, gave a hint of what might be in store at Old Trafford and Elland Road when he said that his side "needed to test out the referee".

This is a fine line to tread. There have been times in recent memory, notably at Brisbane in 1988, when British sides have gone over the brink and become woefully undisciplined. There is a danger of being trapped in the "can't play, can't fight" syndrome.

The other problem is that, unlike New Zealand when they beat Australia in September, Britain does not really have that sort of player anymore. It would have been handy to have a forthright type, like Leeds' Barrie McDermott, available to tear into the Australians at Wembley and there was support in the players' bar afterwards for someone like Neil Cowie to be brought in for the second Test. With all due respect to the Wigan prop, that shows just how short of firepower the British game is at the moment.

Not that every player needed to take on board his full share of the collective self-reproach after the game. Paul Sculthorpe, always potentially dangerous in a wide-running role, had a fine game and Jason Robinson could not have done much more at full-back. Mick Cassidy worked himself to standstill in the second row and Paul Newlove, often justifiably criticised for a fluctuating level of commitment, had one of his most involved afternoons.

But for every qualified success there were a couple of disappointments. The front row failed to fire and Australia bossed the show in midfield. This was not the fault of Andy Farrell, who might be the best loose forward in the world, but is also Britain's best available stand-off. Playing him in that role at Wembley could be termed a success, but if Goodway was selecting a team in the same circumstances today he would surely be obliged to do the same thing again.

Bobbie Goulding performed rather better than might have been expected of a man who was not exactly in prime form when he last played, way back in August. But even at his most match-sharp, he does not have the running game to put a defence as good as Australia's on the back foot. An unpredictable live- wire like Sean Long would have been well worth having on the bench.

For the most part, though, Goodway cannot call on better players; he has to extract better performances from the ones he has, and that is an early and searching test of his credentials as an international coach.

It goes without saying that he would love to have a player like Laurie Daley at his disposal; any coach at any stage of the game's history would kill for such a talent. The Australian captain was superb. Maybe he did not have to work particularly hard for all three of his tries, but something looked bound to happen whenever he had the ball in his hands. He fulfils the main criterion for greatness by making it immediately look a different game when he has possession.

Daley's excellence should be no surprise, but there were other eye opening contributions from Australians who are not yet as well known to British audiences. Darren Lockyer, despite one error that allowed Robinson to score the try that sparked a short-lived British fight back, was magnificent at full-back. Gorden Tallis was the most damaging runner on the field, Ryan Girdler looked every inch a Test centre and the cumulative strain of stopping Wendell Sailor's incursions took its toll.

The veteran hooker, Steve Walters, recalled to the Australian side from reserve-team rugby in North Queensland, gave James Lowes a lesson in intelligent, incisive dummy-half play and was at the heart of his side's control of proceedings.

Lowes, such a powerful influence during Bradford's Super League-winning campaign, was one Britain's major let downs. But if the British pack needs some more mongrel in its make up for the second Test, as it most certainly does, then Lowes still has to be the prime candidate to provide it.

Yet Britain need more than that. They need the inspiration that was so conspicuously lacking at Wembley if this is set to develop into a depressingly one-sided Test series.

"We played badly, and we got badly beaten," said the British team manager, Phil Lowe. "If we played out of our skins we might just win." That is the scale of the challenge over the next two weekends.

GREAT BRITAIN: Robinson (Wigan); Hunte (St Helens), Radlinski (Wigan), Newlove (St Helens), Sullivan (St Helens); Farrell (Wigan), Goulding (St Helens); McDermott (Bradford), Lowes (Bradford), Broadbent (Sheffield), Joynt (St Helens), Cassidy (Wigan), Sculthorpe (Warrington). Substitutes used: McNamara (Bradford), Atcheson (Oldham), Morley (Leeds), Sampson (Castleford).

AUSTRALIA: Lockyer (Brisbane); Mullins (Canberra), Ettingshausen (Cronulla), Girdler (Penrith), Sailor (Brisbane); Daley (Canberra), Gower (Penrith); Stevens (Cronulla), Walters (North Queensland), Thorn (Brisbane), Adamson (Penrith), Tallis (Brisbane), Smith (Brisbane). Substitutes used: Kearns (Perth), Greenhill (Cronulla), Nagas (Canberra), Kimmorley (Hunter).

Referee: P Houston (New Zealand).