Rugby League: Whole-hearted Lions lose series

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The Independent Online
New Zealand 18 Great Britain 15

For the second time in a week, Great Britain played a full part in a gripping and entertaining Test match and came away with nothing. The bitter reality is that the Lions have lost a series against New Zealand for the first time since 1984.

As is now almost guaranteed in matches between the two countries, there was little to choose between the sides. But whereas in Auckland last week a refereeing decision was crucial, Britain were beaten here by a Kiwi team that carved out more chances and deserved its spoils.

There were times, though, when the sheer grit and application of a British team making the most of what scraps it could find threatened to take the match in the opposite direction.

For much of the first half, the tourists were under pressure, with Sean Hoppe, Richard Barnett and Gene Ngamu all going close to scoring, but the Kiwis being restricted to a penalty from their captain, Matthew Ridge, that made him New Zealand's leading points scorer in Tests.

Britain were conceding too many penalties and dropping too many passes early in the tackle count to be able to mount any sustained attacks, but they proved adept at making the most of what they had.

Their first real assault on the Kiwi line saw their captain, Andy Farrell, suck in the defence and turn to get his pass away to Denis Betts. He found Alan Hunte in support and, against the run of play, Great Britain were ahead, a conversion and a drop goal from Bobbie Goulding making their lead five points.

New Zealand, however, were always dangerous and Great Britain always prone to damaging handling errors. A pile-driving double tackle from Grant Young and John Timu knocked the ball out of Hunte's grasp and possession from the scrum allowed the Kiwis to exert the pressure that at last made the tourists crack.

Tony Iro's pass opened up the Lions down their left flank and Timu found Ruben Wiki in support for the first of his two tries. Ridge's kick put the Kiwis in front, but immediately before half-time Great Britain again took advantage of an isolated attack, Stuart Spruce spinning out of the clutches of the defence and Betts using his strength to plough in for another converted try.

On balance, Britain were fortunate to be in the lead, but the combination of Betts and Farrell around the fringes held out the promise of a victory that would square the series.

Eleven minutes into the second half, however, the Kiwis struck back, the admirable Steven Kearney getting his pass out of Iestyn Harris' tackle and Wiki again going for the line. Spruce slipped going across to make the tackle and the Canberra centre held off Goulding to touchdown, Ridge surprisingly missing his shot at goal by hitting the post to leave his side one point in arrears.

That became a three-point deficit, handsomely wide in the context of the current tradition of Anglo-Kiwi nail-biters, but it did not survive for long. With little more than 15 minutes remaining, Great Britain had a narrow escape when another superb pass from Kearney sent Stacey Jones in, only for Spruce to succeed in turning him over before he could ground the ball.

The reprieve was short-lived. From the resulting scrum, Ngamu ran wide and straightened up through the gap between Daryl Powell and the substitute Barrie-Jon Mather for the decisive try, this time improved by Ridge.

There was still time for a potentially thrilling finish, with Harris and Kris Radlinski kicking through and Hunte almost getting there ahead of Marc Ellis to salvage the game and the series.

The Great Britain coach, Phil Larder, who refused to blame the dislocation caused by sending 11 players home this week for the defeat, called it "an outstanding Test match".

"I'm bitterly disappointed to have lost but I thought we played some extremely good rugby. We've no moans and groans about being beaten by a very good New Zealand side."

NEW ZEALAND: Ridge (Manly); Hoppe (Auckland), Wiki (Canberra), Timu (Canterbury), Barnett (Cronulla); Ngamu, Jones (both Auckland); Young (South Queensland), Eru (Auckland), Pongia (Canberra), Iro (Sydney City), Kearney (Auckland), Smith (South Sydney).

Substitutes: Ellis, Vagana, Blackmore, Swann (all Auckland).

GREAT BRITAIN: Spruce (Bradford); Hunte (St Helens), Radlinski (Wigan), Powell (Keighley), Sullivan (St Helens); Harris (Warrington), Goulding (St Helens); Broadbent (Sheffield), Cunningham (St Helens), O'Connor (Wigan), Betts (Auckland), Sculthorpe (Warrington), Farrell (Wigan). Substitutes: Mather (Western Reds), Joynt (St Helens), Malloy (Featherstone), Hammond (St Helens).

Referee: G Annesley (Australia).

The Under-19 Academy side also lost their three-match series against the Junior Kiwis, going down to a 27-24 defeat in the second Test in Palmerston North.

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