Great Britain Rugby League Lions: Papua New Guinea putting fun back into difficult tour

By Dave WoodsBBC rugby league correspondent

Papua New Guinea has put the fun back into this Great Britain tour.

In this country, rugby league has a perpetual smile on its face. It has been just what was needed at the end of a difficult few weeks for the reinstated Rugby League Lions.

It has seemed like a grind at times, as the Lions have struggled to find much form or finesse in losing twice to New Zealand and once to Tonga.

Beating the Kumuls is no 'gimme', given the pedigree they have in their side and the energy they are likely to draw from a fanatical full house at the Oil Search Stadium in Port Moresby.

But at least we have all been reminded in these past few days in PNG that rugby league can be as much about fun and enjoyment as it is about inquests and doom-laden hand-wringing among British fans.

The locals love rugby league to the point of fanaticism, and they have shown a warmth bordering on hysteria having the Lions as guests.

James Graham, along with the rest of the players, has combined training in high humidity with visits to schools and villages, where the squad has been accorded superstar status by excited children and adults.

"The love from the people we receive, the smiles we get when we go into breakfast, it's like nothing I've ever seen before," said the Great Britain captain.

"It will stay with me for as long as I have a working memory."

Even the 'Supercoach' is enjoying the spotlight

Wayne Bennett
Wayne Bennett has had little to smile about on this tour so far results-wise, but has been warmly received by the rugby league community in Papua New Guinea

Like the players, coach Wayne Bennett has been mobbed wherever he has gone.

"I've a soft spot for PNG. They like their rugby league so much, it's overwhelming." said the Australian.

"They all think they know me. They see me on TV and think I'm a personal friend. It's nice."

The stadium will be full and towns and villages will come to a standstill throughout PNG come kick-off time on Saturday as television sets are surrounded. The hope here is for a home win, but they will enjoy it all the same, even if Great Britain take the spoils.

Just having a game to watch, especially one involving their NRL and Super League idols playing on both sides, is enough for what will be a nationwide party. They are truly excited that Great Britain are back after a 23-year wait.

It is joyous - what sport should be about.

For Great Britain, though, a win is paramount. Their three games so far have not lacked commitment nor effort.

They have not fallen as far off the rails as has been implied by some critics and, taking into account the number of truly influential and world-class players who have not been available for one reason or another, it is a little knee-jerk to be over-critical.

But, that said, they have been a tough watch at times.

Lions' 'functioning failure in attack'

Gareth Widdop
Gareth Widdop (left) has struggled to impose himself on the Great Britain attack

A tally of only three tries scored in those three matches points to a current functioning failure in attack. The halves need to spark, chances need to be taken. The bottom line in sport is it needs to entertain - that is what it exists for.

The Test match arena is a tough one and the point has been justifiably made that defences at this level are super-efficient and dominant. But the hope will be that, this week, shackles can be broken in a more effective manner.

And, with due respect to their opposition, as difficult as the conditions may be come kick-off and as loud and emotional the noise from the stands will be, this is a game that Great Britain should win.

PNG are firing. They only just lost a terrifically exciting game against Fiji in Christchurch last week, going down 22-20 when they probably ought to have claimed the victory.

And they have a scattering of NRL and Super League players in their ranks, including South Sydney Rabbitohs' Alex Johnston at full-back, Catalans' David Mead in the three-quarters and Leeds' Rhyse Martin, who captains the side from loose-forward.

But this is a match in which the Lions will be expected to kick off the inhibitions of the past few weeks, find their combinations and spark and have some fun in the setting Port Moresby sun.

There are not many British fans here. It is an expensive and difficult place to get to and not easy for sightseeing when you are here. But there will still be plenty of love for the Lions players when they step on to the field, even if the environment seems superficially hostile.

The white shirt with blue and red 'V' has a special place in Papua New Guinea's rugby league hearts.

England were the first national team to play the Kumuls in the year the country won its independence in 1975. Just months later, PNG were admitted into the International Federation.

Great Britain against Papua New Guinea
Garry Schofield (centre) helps Great Britain to success against PNG in 1991 - one of seven wins

But they have played Great Britain eight times since, the most recent a 32-30 win for the tourists in 1996.

Of those eight meetings so far, Great Britain have won seven. PNG's sole victory was a 20-18 win - the 'Tear Gas Test' - at Goroka in May 1990, though Great Britain did win 40-8 in Port Moresby a week later.

Great Britain means something here, even if the locals are not sure what it means. At one of the first press conferences here this week, local journalists had to ask what countries make up Great Britain.

But they recognise the brand, the history and the tradition, if not the geography. The Great Britain players will be hoping to live up to that brand by registering a first win of this the final game of the tour.

If they can, then it will not just be Papua New Guinea's fanatical population enjoying rugby league. The grumpy Brits can crack a smile as well.

Great Britain 19-man squad for Papua New Guinea Test: Lomax, McGillvary, Hughes, Connor, Austin, Widdop, Hastings, Hill, Hodgson, Burgess, Bateman, Whitehead, Graham (capt), Thompson, Williams, Philbin, Walmsley, Jones, Clark.

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