Rugby League: Britain squander chance

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New Zealand. . . .15

Great Britain. . .14

AN error-strewn 10 minutes cost Great Britain a Test they assumed - several minutes too early - that they had won here yesterday. The collapse of a 14-6 lead into a one-point defeat was a personal disaster for Graham Steadman, whose safe and yet enterprising play at full-back has been one of the features of the tour.

Steadman had been as sound as ever until the 66th minute when his opposite number, Matthew Ridge, hoisted a high kick near the British line. Ridge got up higher and Steadman and the ball ran loose in the in-goal area, where Britain could still have escaped if Paul Eastwood had managed to get a saving boot to the ball. Eastwood has kicked some vital goals for Great Britain but he has rarely missed his target as expensively as yesterday.

With the ball still loose, Richie Blackmore dived through for a try which Ridge converted to cut the lead to two points.

That lead disappeared altogether six minutes later, as Phil Clarke and the British substitute, Joe Lydon, were penalised for holding down Ridge in a tackle. It seemed a harsh penalty from an otherwise impressive referee, the Australian Bill Harrigan. Gavin Hill, kicking in place of Ridge, levelled the score.

With an enthusiastic crowd of 11,000 behind them, the impetus was now firmly with the Kiwis. One of their timely replacements, Tea Ropati from St Helens, kicked deep with five minutes to go and Steadman suffered the second part of his nightmare. The ball took two awkward bounces and the wrong-footed Castleford full-back could only get a touch which left it for Gary Freeman to collect in the British 25.

It was obvious what was needed and New Zealand duly set up the position for Ridge's replacement, Daryl Halligan, to snap the drop goal. It was a classic finish to an exciting Test and it would do the spirited Kiwis less than justice to suggest that they did not deserve their narrow victory. With 15 minutes to go, however, they had looked a beaten side.

'That may have been the trouble,' Garry Schofield, the Great Britain captain, said. 'We thought we had wrapped up the game and the enthusiasm just wasn't there. We've only got ourselves to blame.'

Great Britain had done the hard work in a first half played into a strong wind and against a Kiwi side enjoying the bulk of possession. New Zealand took the lead when Kevin Iro gave a glimpse of the damage he used to do in a Wigan shirt, resisting a horde of tacklers to get his pass away to Freeman.

The Kiwis' scrum-half and captain, a tireless prompter throughout, dashed away and found Tony Kemp in support to complete an excellent try.

Great Britain's reply was just as good, Schofield's pass sending Clarke striding through and the loose forward timing his pass perfectly for Shaun Edwards to score a try to which Eastwood, who had earlier missed a penalty, added the goal easily.

The combination of Iro and Freeman almost produced a second Kiwi try, but Edwards's tackle forced Freeman into the corner flag, and Eastwood's penalty after Kemp had interfered with Schofield at the play-the-ball put Great Britain four points ahead after a half which had seen them defend for long periods.

A remarkable try five minutes after the break put them into the winning position they were ultimately to squander. Gary Connolly, showing some nice evasive skills in the centres, began it with a sinuous run. Martin Offiah, generally starved of possession, carried it on and managed to get the ball to Lee Jackson.

Although the Hull hooker, another of Britain's better performers, was tackled, he was back on his feet quickly enough to carry on; Schofield and Offiah arrived in support and Clarke, showing pace and anticipation, overlapped on the left to score, with Eastwood again adding the conversion.

If Eastwood had landed a penalty soon after, Britain could hardly have been caught. Instead, New Zealand staged a memorable escape, for which their coach, Howie Tamati, thanked some judicious replacements and the noisy support of the crowd.

'I thought they looked beaten,' Malcolm Reilly, his British counterpart, said. 'But we couldn't turn our possession into points and they were able to get back upfield and put us under pressure with kicks.

'It's very disappointing because we could see that we were capable of taking the game. We just let it slip.'

Reilly must now reflect on whether a couple of members of his unbeaten midweek side, notably John Devereux, a non-playing substitute yesterday, and Deryck Fox, would have made a difference in those slippery latter stages. Some adjustment of the side looks worthwhile for the second and final Test in Auckland next Sunday.

The New Zealand selectors have named an identical team for next week's second Test at Carlaw Park, Auckland.

New Zealand: Tries Kemp, Blackmore; Goals Ridge 2, Hill; Drop goals Halligan. Great Britain: Tries Edwards, Clarke. Goals Eastwood 3.

NEW ZEALAND: Ridge (Manly); Hoppe (Canberra), Iro (Manly), Kemp (Newcastle), Blackmore (Castleford); Clark (Auckland), Freeman (Eastern Suburbs, Sydney, capt); Stuart (Canterbury, NZ), Mann (Warrington), Todd (Gold Coast), Hill (Canterbury, Aus), Pongia (Canterbury, NZ), Tuuta (Featherstone Rovers). Replacements: Ropati (St Helens) for Clark, 51; Kuiti (Wellington) for Pongia, 67; Halligan (North Sydney) for Ridge, 70; Woods (Wellington) for Stuart, 55.

GREAT BRITAIN: Steadman (Castleford); Eastwood (Hull), Howell (Sheffield), Connolly (St Helens), Offiah (Wigan); Schofield (Leeds, capt), Edwards; Skerrett (both Wigan), Jackson (Hull), Platt, Betts, McGinty, Clarke (all Wigan). Replacements: Harrison (Halifax) for Skerrett, 40; Lydon (Wigan) for Connolly, 64; Hulme (Widnes) for Jackson, 76.

Referee: W Harrigan (Australia).