Rugby League: Wounded Lions go down fighting

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The Independent Online

New Zealand 32 Great Britain 12

Britain's walking wounded staggered and limped away with all the unwanted luggage of a series of new records as they went down to their third defeat in New Zealand here yesterday.

The tourists started with six men who should not have played and suffered injuries that deprived them of two others. The record books tend to miss that sort of background information. What they will remember is that this was Great Britain's biggest losing margin against the Kiwis and only the second whitewash in a series.

It was also, by any dispassionate measurement, the end of the least successful tour of a major league-playing nation that the Lions have ever endured: they will fly home tomorrow without having won a game in New Zealand.

And yet among this chronicle of disaster, there was much that was brave and admirable in Britain's efforts last night.

Two of their most vital players, Bobbie Goulding and Andy Farrell, could only turn out after being given painkilling injections. Others, like Stuart Spruce and Kris Radlinski, chose not to have the needle, playing through considerable pain instead, while Alan Hunte and Daryl Powell both turned out despite medical advice against doing so.

"I wouldn't be critical of any of the players and I would be very disappointed if anyone else was," their coach, Phil Larder, said. "I felt that everyone out there gave me 100 per cent and you can't ask for more than that."

Farrell was a typical case of going beyond any reasonable call of duty. "He was told he shouldn't play because of the muscle tear in his side, and it was only Andy appealing to me to let him go out there as captain that saw him play," Larder said. Farrell had to run up and down the touchline 15 minutes before the game to assess whether his injections had worked. Like others who should have been sitting safely in the stands, he shirked nothing, demonstrating a spirit for which this beaten touring party will get all too little credit.

Farrell's henchman, Denis Betts, was another who stood out. On the day he equalled Cliff Watson's 25-year-old record as Britain's most capped forward, Betts also achieved the distinction of scoring a try in each match of the series.

His touchdown after three minutes, spotting a gap in the corner from dummy-half, briefly made it seem possible that Great Britain could defy medical science, but it was not to be a happy 31st international for Betts, however well he played individually.

Within five minutes, the Kiwis had drawn level, John Timu going through some substandard defence for a converted try.

New Zealand dominated from that point onwards, but were held at bay until 12 minutes before half-time, when the match suddenly fell apart for Great Britain, with three quick tries killing off their hopes of salvaging anything from the series.

Stacey Jones and Steve Kearney combined to send in Ruben Wiki to begin the collapse and, when Goulding's attempt to pass to Hunte was intercepted by Gene Ngamu, it was almost all over. Another ill-fated Goulding initiative saw New Zealand again turn defence into attack, Timu picking off the British scrum-half's chip kick and Ngamu releasing Sean Hoppe.

Iestyn Harris's pass sent Adrian Morley charging over to fan a few embers of hope. They glowed fitfully for 10 minutes before New Zealand again showed how dangerous they are direct from the scrum, Jones and Ngamu slicing the British defence apart for Hoppe to claim his second.

Matthew Ridge claimed the final points of the game and series, converting a try which he scored out of nothing, his fourth goal underlining his contribution to this increasingly confident Kiwi side as full-back, captain and kicker. His other role, as wind-up merchant, was responsible for one of the more bizarre endings to any player's Test career.

Powell had already announced that he would be retiring from internationals after this, his 33rd appearance for his country, to concentrate on his new job as player-coach at Keighley. However, he proved unwilling to bow out in a quiet or orthodox manner.

Powell tangled with Ridge, after the Kiwi captain had allegedly "sledged" another British player. The Great Britain centre then appeared to be sent off for what he said to the referee, Steven Clark, but somehow managed to return to the field for the last two minutes. It was later confirmed that Powell had indeed been sent off for "foul and abusive language" rather than merely sin-binned, and he has had to apologise to the international judiciary for his unscheduled reappearance with which he brought down the curtain on a stubborn and durable Test career.

There was something almost symbolic about it. Britain badly beaten but unwilling to accept it gracefully, brought back up to quota by a player who was not even allowed to be there. There was a courage about this defeat that deserves to be remembered despite the statistics of this miserable month in New Zealand.

NEW ZEALAND: Ridge (Manly, capt); Hoppe (Auckland), Wiki (Canberra), Timu (Canterbury), Ellis (Auckland); Ngamu (Auckland), Jones (Auckland); Young (South Queensland), Eru (Auckland), Pongia (Canberra), Iro (Sydney City), Kearney (Auckland), Smith (South Sydney). Substitutes: A Swann (Auckland), Vagana (Auckland), Blackmore (Auckland), L Swann (Auckland).

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

Referee: S Clark (Australia).