RUGBY LEAGUE: Collapse sets off the alarm for Goodway

Great Britain 16 New Zealand 36
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The Independent Online
MUCH OF the progress the game in Britain has made over the past couple of years was frittered away - or, at best, badly mislaid - in 40 minutes of inexplicable awfulness at Bolton on Saturday night.

It was not just a matter of losing a record fifth successive Test to the Kiwis by a record score. It was not merely a case of losing a second series in a row and a first on home soil since 1971.

This was the sort of embarrassing collapse Great Britain specialised in against Australia a decade or more ago. To make it worse, it happened from a position of some strength, after the platform of a 16-8 lead had been built in the first half.

This is a fine Kiwi side, high on physical strength, team-work and speed. There would be no disgrace in losing to them, but to fail so abjectly to compete with them for 40 minutes rings alarm bells.

Let us dispose of the excuses first. Great Britain were below full strength? Certainly, the absence of Denis Betts and loss of Adrian Morley and Paul Newlove on the morning of the match clearly did not help, but compared with the ravaged line-up that battled rather better than this in New Zealand two years ago, this was a team of greats.

There were a couple of decisions that could have gone the other way, notably the interminable video scrutiny before Richie Barnett's second try was allowed, but not even the British camp could claim that referee Bill Harrigan had any real influence on the result.

Then there is the question of preparation time. It is just a fact of life that a national coach cannot get his squad together until the end of the domestic season and, as Andy Goodway said, you have to do your best with the time available. Besides, having his troops assembled for a full fortnight before a Test would strike some of Goodway's predecessors as an unimaginable luxury.

Likewise, the argument that New Zealand have a built-in advantage because the bulk of their side plays together for the Auckland Warriors. The vast majority of the Great Britain team is drawn from three clubs - Wigan, Leeds and St Helens; if they cannot get it together better than this after two weeks, there is something badly wrong.

The former coach of St Helens and now at Gateshead, Shaun McRae, has worked with both national squads, as well as with his native Australians. His summing up of the shortcomings of Great Britain was mercilessly succinct: "Not big enough. Not strong enough."

They are all full-time professionals, with nothing else to do but get bigger, stronger and better, and they look impressive enough as a group of young men. However, put them alongside the Kiwis, and there is a qualitative difference. The game here simply does not produce a prop forward of the size, power and mobility of Joe Vagana, not to mention one who can routinely get through the full 80 minutes of a Test match like Quentin Pongia.

Even the smaller men, like the admirable scrum-half, Stacey Jones, have remarkable physical strength at their disposal.

It would be wrong, though, to put the whole extent of the difference between the sides down to a question of physique. New Zealand were better organised and motivated; a credit to their immensely likable coach, Frank Endacott, sacked by Auckland on the eve of the tour's departure but vindicated by the way his players performed for him.

"Their performance was enhanced by our lack of performance," said Goodway, while his captain, Andy Farrell, called the second half "the worst of my career".

And yet it looked so different in the first half. A capacity crowd at the Reebook Stadium - or as many of them as managed to get in for the start - saw a Great Britain display that represented a real improvement on the first Test at Huddersfield the previous week. The introduction of Iestyn Harris from the start gave them far more attacking impetus and his try, following a marvellous solo effort from Jason Robinson, gave his side a handy half-time lead.

In retrospect, it should have been far bigger, because the Kiwis' fallible handling and a string of penalties against them gave the home side a huge advantage in possession.

Someone turned the script upside down at half-time. The Kiwis' tackling suffocated any British progress and the home defence simply fell apart.

Newlove's absence then really started to hurt, with the right wing partnership of Keith Senior - whose play was so much better in an unfamiliar position the previous week - and Francis Cummins always vulnerable.

Along with their five second- half tries, the Kiwis could have scored three more. That was the extent of their domination and of the shock to the system of a game in Britain that truly thought it had made giant strides.

Now all that remains is the possibility of a cosmetic victory in the third Test at Watford next Saturday.

There is another notable public occasion in the London area that day; for Great Britain, it really is a case of after the Lord Mayor's Show.

GREAT BRITAIN: Radlinski; Robinson, Connolly (all Wigan), Senior (Sheffield), Cummins; Harris (both Leeds), Smith; Cowie (both Wigan), Cunningham (St Helens), Laughton (Sheffield), Joynt, Sculthorpe (both St Helens), Farrell (Wigan). Substitutes used: O'Connor, Haughton, Gilmour (all Wigan), Howard (Bradford).

NEW ZEALAND: Barnett (Sydney City); Hoppe, K Iro (both Auckland), Wiki (Canberra), Halligan (Canterbury); R Paul (Bradford), Jones; Vagana, Eru, Pongia, Kearney (all Auckland), McCracken (Parramatta), Swann (Auckland). Substitutes used: H Paul (Wigan), T Iro (Adelaide), Puletua (Penrith), Cayless (Parramatta).

Referee: B Harrigan (Aus).