Lions tour 2019: Phil Clarke and Brian Carney review Great Britain’s winter tour
Great Britain’s first tour for 23 years ended in defeat on Saturday as the team suffered a shock 28-10 loss against Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.
That made it four defeats in four games this winter for the Lions, going down to Tonga in the opening match and then suffering back-to-back losses in the two-Test series against New Zealand.
Here, Sky Sports rugby league experts and former Lions internationals Phil Clarke and Brian Carney answer some of the big questions as the team make their way home…
Bennett: Game is getting stronger
Lions suffer shock PNG defeat
Bennett defends Lions’ English majority
What has the return of the Lions achieved?
The Great Britain team’s return after a 12-year absence was announced in a blaze of publicity earlier in the year and created much excitement. But the tour did not live up to expectations as far as on-the-field results go and it has left some wondering what the RFL’s thought process was.
Brian Carney (Great Britain 2003-06, 14 caps): “As debate rages on whether the Great Britain Rugby League Lions – as is, apparently, the official title – as a rugby league concept has a future, there are a few fundamental questions which should be answered publicly by the people who reintroduced the jersey.
“The questions I have are not directly related to the on-field performances. Do they have a long-term plan for Great Britain and, if so, what is it? What did they do to introduce the Lions brand to people unaware of it? What was done to reintroduce the jersey to those who grew up with the team?
“What consideration was given to Wales, Scotland and Ireland as part of any long-term plan for the Lions and its reintroduction? Was it agreed between the RFL executive and performance department that this touring squad would be selected with a view to assisting England’s World Cup preparations?
“There are a few fundamental questions which should be answered publicly by the people who reintroduced the jersey. In summary: What were you trying to achieve by bringing back the Lions?”
“In summary: What were you trying to achieve by bringing back the Lions?”
Phil Clarke (Great Britain 1989-94, 16 caps): “It is hard to know what went wrong on a tour unless you were there. Staff members and players would know far more, but are usually reluctant to talk.
“The days of having an army of journalists travelling with the team seem to be over and so we get to hear very little from the tour. Anyone connected to it is obviously biased by their involvement, but it is clear that it was a massive failure on many levels.
“The only positive to come out of it, for me, is that assistant coaches Danny Ward and Ian Watson will have realised Wayne Bennett does not know anything more than them. He has no magic and I hope that, in a way, it has made them feel more confident about what they do.”
Wayne Bennett’s selection decisions
Although ostensibly representing all four Home Nations, Scotland’s Lachlan Coote and Ireland’s Joe Philbin were the only players not involved in the England set-up included by Bennett. The decision to call up Ash Handley as an injury replacement and Bennett’s admission Wales’ Regan Grace was not even considered for the initial squad furthered underlined feelings this was just England in a different guise, while the Australian persisting with half-back Blake Austin on the wing after Handley arrived confounded many.
PC: “The selection of Blake Austin on the wing fascinates me. It has happened for many years and I am not saying that it was wrong, but if that is the case then do any positions matter?
“Could you play a game with 13 backs on the pitch? It seems a though rugby league is now one size fits all and one play is all you need.
“I am saddened that the rules of the game mean that picking the ball up and running directly from behind the play-the-ball seems to be the most effective move in the sport.
“They sometimes stop kids from doing this and make them pass the ball, but at the highest level of the international game running from the play-the-ball is the most exciting thing we have to look forward to – or a kick on the last tackle.
“The selection of Blake Austin on the wing fascinates me. It has happened for many years and I am not saying that it was wrong, but if that is the case then do any positions matter?”
“I am more critical of the game’s administrators than the coach here. He is simply using the most likely tactics to score.”
BC: “Understanding the purpose of the Tour helps in answering some of the puzzling selections. We need to know the brief of the coach here.
“The much commented upon ‘imbalance’ in Wayne Bennett’s squad won’t seem as strange if his employers allowed him to use the Great Britain tour as a trial for English half-backs. It wasn’t my understanding of what the Lions would be, but I am not in charge.
“I have expressed previously my disappointment at Bennett’s frequent references to ‘England’ when I was expecting ‘Great Britain’ to be the next words out of his mouth.”
Should the RFL offer Bennett a new contract?
Bennett’s contract as England head coach has expired now the tour is over and the RFL must decide whether they want to offer him an extension for next year’s Ashes series and the 2021 World Cup. The governing body have insisted the Great Britain tour will not be the only factor taken into account, but some have questioned whether the South Sydney Rabbitohs head coach should be offered a new deal.
PC: “Wayne Bennett does not seem to follow the Super League or game in this country enough. If you showed him photos of the 12 head coaches and asked him to name them all I am not sure he could do it.
“I am not sure that he knows who all of the players are over here either and I hear stories from Down Under which suggest he does not watch many of the games in Super League.
“His interviews are boring and his style of rugby is the same. We need a coach who is prepared to talk up the game and try to help sell it. He talks about getting into the grind and wearing down our opponents, and that hardly excites me to want to watch.
“The fact that he would not play the game and talk positively about Great Britain and the Lions was another example of why he is not the right man to help rugby league over here.”
BC: “Wayne and the RFL didn’t appear to distinguish between England and Great Britain. My guess is when deciding on Wayne’s future, a distinction will reappear.”
What does the future hold for the Lions?
The disappointing results on this winter’s tour have left questions over whether the concept has a future or if it should be permanently shelved, with the four Home Nations continuing as separate entities.
BC: “I would keep the Lions – I have fond memories of watching both league and union Lions series and it is absolutely fair to compare the teams of the 13 and 15-man codes.
“As concepts, they are identical – the best available players from four nations in one squad. No-one expects the League iteration to ever reach the commercial and profile levels of union’s Lions, but the important comparison is how they treat the individual countries that make up the team.
“So what if no Irish players are currently considered good enough in league? That doesn’t mean the RFL can’t have a team that provides opportunities for players from the Celtic Nations as and when they do push themselves into contention.
“Encourage people like Joe Philbin and Ben Currie to stay with Ireland. They want to play against New Zealand and Australia, and the Lions would provide that without them having to declare for England.”
PC: “The Great Britain Lions died in 1995 when rugby union went professional. In 1992, the Lions at least had great Scottish and Welsh players like Alan Tait, Jonathan Davies and John Devereux available for selection.
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