Great Britain Rugby League: Leave the Lions in the history books and focus on the future

By Dave WoodsBBC rugby league correspondent

Great Britain was back. Out came those white shirts with the red and blue Vs and the lion on the chest, and we all burst with pride at the memories of what we thought that brand was all about.

But please Rugby Football League, can we pack away all the paraphernalia and retire the GB Rugby League Lions for good now? Things aren't what they used to be.

I have to admit to being as excited as anyone when GB was reinstated. The nostalgia is intoxicating. We've all got a movie-reel of memories running through our heads of heroes in that jersey making magic.

But it doesn't work anymore. The Great Britain Rugby League Lions is now a clunky concept based in the past. And this current incarnation has not inspired a desire to extend the brand.

Hard-working but dull in the first two games, disappointing in the third - the defeat to New Zealand in the match in Christchurch - and insipid and deflating in their surrender to Papua New Guinea in the final game.

A collection of Queensland Cup and Championship players, with only a sprinkling of NRL and Super League talent, made the Lions look like pussycats.

The 28-10 victory for the Kumuls was a fantastic result for international rugby league, history-making for PNG, but an embarrassment for the British game.

But even if Wayne Bennett's side had won all four matches with a flourish, this tour underlined that GB as a rugby league concept is history, not the future.

The British talent pool not big enough for GB

For a start, and with the best will in the world, you simply cannot put together a team of international Test standard players that truly represent the four countries of Great Britain and Ireland.

There's one or two who, through familial roots, qualify for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, but who are essentially English. And then there's Regan Grace, and maybe Gil Dudson and Ben Flower. 

But, hand on heart, can a case be made for any other actual Welsh, Irish or Scottish-born player to be a part of any current GB set up?

How many actual Welsh, Irish or Scottish-born players even are there in Super League and the NRL?

Great Britain Rugby League Lions is England, they just wear a different shirt.

There's a few back home who've had a pop at Wayne Bennett for saying he's used this tour to experiment with the half-backs in preparation for England's Ashes series next year and the World Cup in 2021.

Well, of course he has. Because he's only had English half-backs to choose from. What's he supposed to have done? Drag Iestyn Harris out of retirement? Sling Danny Brough out there just for the sake of home nation representation?

Anyone who says he's disrespected the GB concept should grow up and understand that actually the GB concept is a false one. In rugby league terms it's only real in the memories of the middle-aged.

Once upon a time Great Britain was truly representative. But you're going back a bit. Jonathan Davies, Scott Gibbs, John Devereux - now they were Welsh and wouldn't conceive of playing under an England banner. 

But the depth of talent with such qualifications thinned rapidly once rugby union went professional. And with it the raison d'être for Great Britain. 

Lions failed to excite the masses

Dave Valentine hoists the World Cup aloft in 1954
Hawick-born Scotland rugby union convert Dave Valentine lifts the World Cup for Great Britain in 1954, when the squad was diverse and also made up of players from Wales and Scotland. Today, there isn't the talent around.

The theory also, before this tour, was that bringing back the Great Britain Rugby League Lions would excite the masses in the antipodes. That New Zealanders, particularly, we were told, would flock to Eden Park, Auckland and the Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch because of their memories and the strength of that brand.

I don't know if you saw the crowds at both those grounds, but I think it's safe to say that theory proved more than a little wide of the mark. 

And this whole Great Britain thing is confusing for anyone outside of Great Britain - especially, it seems, down under.

The Aussie video referee could be heard giving a decision to "the English" in one game. In Papua New Guinea journalists at a press conference were clearly confused about which countries are in Great Britain.

One journalist told us that Great Britain would always have a special place in the hearts of locals because they were the first team to play in PNG after they'd been admitted into the International Federation in 1975. Actually, that was England.

And here's another bugbear, we can't even officially call them the "Lions", the 15-a-siders have legally claimed that nickname as their own, even though they were three or four decades behind rugby league in initially adopting it.

So let's get back to just being England, maybe until such time that there is a lot of genuine Welsh, Scottish and Irish talent running around in league.

There's no criticism of those who decided it would be a good idea to bring back GB. We all got more than a little excited at the prospect. But now we've seen it in action, it doesn't work.

So if not GB, where next for England. This collection of players, with the exception of Lachlan Coote, would have all been in contention for a place in the Ashes team next year and the World Cup in 2021.

There are a few that would have played themselves out of contention in the last few weeks. 

James Graham
Great Britain skipper James Graham has been one of the world's best front-rowers for a good decade, but even he was unable to provide the spark needed to lift the Lions during this tour.

Maybe this crop, minus a couple of influential personalities like Sam Burgess and Sean O'Loughlin, are not as good as they think they are. They have to earn their stripes and have failed to do that in the last four weeks.

Critics will pile into Wayne Bennett, and they have a right to do so given some of the selections - a squad that was made to look massively imbalanced at the first sign of injury, a loyalty to players based on international performances in the past, rather than current form. The in-crowd are just a little too comfortable.

But the bottom line is that a coach is only as good as the talent available and the last few weeks tells us that England doesn't have the depth of talent that maybe we thought they had.

There have plenty of triers, but not enough genuine world-class game breakers.

The clock is ticking down towards 2021, England will only have a maximum of five games to play before that tournament begins - three will be against Australia. And on the evidence of the last few weeks, the players available are a long way short of their world champion status.

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