Rugby League: Schofield helps Lions to salvage their pride

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The Independent Online
New Zealand. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16

Great Britain. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .19

GREAT BRITAIN ended their Australasian rugby league tour yesterday with a win that underlines their continuing progress, but only after one of the most exciting Test matches imaginable.

The Lions were trailing 10-0 and could have been considerably further behind. They had carried on in Auckland where they had left off in their lackadaisical first Test defeat at Palmerston North. Two Kiwi tries, from Gary Freeman and Sean Hoppe, owed a lot to British defensive lapses.

With his mobility reduced because of a tendon problem, it was Garry Schofield's skill as a distributor which came to the fore. His perfectly weighted pass sent Denis Betts striding through and Lee Jackson used his exceptional pace to score under the posts.

A minute before half-time a wild pass from Brendon Tuuta gave Martin Offiah the chance to run from his own 25, but, with nobody within yards of him, he managed to step into touch. Offiah, who had spent 10 minutes off the field for treatment to a head injury, was still dazed and lost his balance as he set off down the wing.

Early in the second half Offiah got tangled up in the defenders channelling across to cover him. When he got the ball out, Schofield had a choice of players running into space. He chose Betts, who never looked like being stopped. Paul Eastwood, in the middle of a near- faultless personal performance, added the goal and Britain were looking the more dangerous side.

After 15 minutes of the half, Schofield again worked an opening. Daryl Powell had the strength to fight off a series of tackles and get the ball to Offiah, who was clear-headed enough by this stage to sprint the 60 yards for the try. When Schofield added a drop goal with eight minutes to go, a British victory seemed inevitable, but an extraordinary match still had a few dramatic twists left in it.

The Lions were under pressure when Offiah was penalised for going high on Hoppe and New Zealand turned their desperation into a brilliant try with Freeman, Iva Ropati and Matthew Ridge handling before Brent Todd barged over.

Ridge's conversion meant that the gap was down to three points with two minutes plus stoppage time left to play. Powell needed to make a vital tackle on Hoppe and Gary Connolly one on Mike Kuiti as the Kiwis chased a last-minute escape.

In a confusing finish, the hooter sounded twice, the crowd came on to the field, and Graham Steadman had a try disallowed for Britain before Hoppe kicked ahead on New Zealand's last attack only for the ball to finish, safely and appropriately, in the arms of Schofield.

'A lot hung on that match,' the British captain said afterwards. 'We can go home now proud of our efforts in Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand.

'If we had lost the series, after what we achieved in Australia, it would have looked as though we had come here not caring, but we showed great spirit and commitment to fight back.'

If Schofield, who did not even warm up with the side for fear of aggravating his injury, epitomised that spirit, it was also there to be seen in the way that players like Eastwood and Powell lifted their games after recent criticisms.

Shaun Edwards played all but a few minutes with a dislocated thumb. Denis Betts created havoc with his wide running, while Karl Harrison and Andy Platt had excellent games in the front row.

'It would have been a disaster to lose,' Platt said. 'We would have gone down as a squad that lost Test series in Australia and New Zealand and we deserved better than that.'

New Zealand: Tries Freeman, Hoppe, Todd; Goals Ridge 2. Great Britain: Tries Jackson, Betts, Offiah; Goals Eastwood 3; Drop goal Schofield.

NEW ZEALAND: Ridge (Manly); Hoppe (Canberra), Iro (Manly), Kemp (Newcastle), Blackmore (Castleford); Clark (Auckland), Freeman (Eastern Suburbs, capt); Stuart (Canterbury, New Zealand), Mann (Warrington), Todd (Gold Coast), Hill (Canterbury, Australia), Pongia (Canterbury, New Zealand), Tuuta (Featherstone). Substitutes: Ropati (St Helens) for Iro, 38; Woods (Wellington) for Hill, 49; Kuiti (Wellington) for Tuuta, 56; Halligan (North Sydney) for Clark, 67.

GREAT BRITAIN: Steadman (Castleford); Eastwood (Hull), Powell (Sheffield), Connolly (St Helens), Offiah (Wigan); Schofield (capt, Leeds, capt), Edwards (Wigan); Harrison (Halifax), L Jackson (Hull), Platt, Betts, McGinty, Clarke (all Wigan). Substitutes: M Jackson (Wakefield) for McGinty, 27; Fairbank (Bradford) for M Jackson, 54; Newlove (Featherstone) for Harrison, 72.

Referee: B Harrigan (Sydney).