Written by Zack Wilson
Photo by Photo RFL
The Great Britain Lions last week announced two of the assistant coaches who would be accompanying Wayne Bennett’s squad on their tour of the Pacific later this year.
London Broncos coach Danny Ward and Salford Red Devils coach Ian Watson have both been appointed as assistant coaches to Bennett for the tour.
Watson’s appointment is particularly interesting, as he, of course, won 30 caps for Wales during his playing career.
So that means that there will be at least one person on the trip flying the flag for the Principality.
It also looks a fair bet that Saints winger Regan Grace, from Port Talbot, will be on the trip, as long as he stays injury free and doesn’t suffer a catastrophic loss of form between now and the end of the season.
It is good to see a Welsh influence on the Great Britain team flickering into life again, not least because when Great Britain have been successful in the past there has almost always been a Welsh presence in the team.
Players like Gus Risman came across before World War Two, and exerted plenty of positive influence on the side.
After the war, rugby league fans were treated to the likes of Ray Price, Dai Bevan, Lewis Jones, Kel Coslett, Colin Dixon and Billy Boston jumping into our code.
Innovative coach Ray Francis from Brynmawr was the first Black player to be capped by Great Britain in 1947.
Many other Welsh players played for Great Britain too, helping the Lions to win series Down Under
And it was Clive Sullivan from Cardiff who scored the decisive try in the 1972 World Cup final to bring the cup home for the Lions, the last time that a team from these shores has won the trophy.
In the 1980s more Welsh players continued to ‘go North’ in great numbers, ensuring that at least some of them would always be pressing a claim for a Great Britain spot.
Names like Jonathan Davies, John Devereux, Paul Moriarty and Kevin Ellis all played for Great Britain too, with the flood of Welsh talent only drying up when rugby union went professional, officially at least, in 1995.
The Welsh influence on the Great Britain team declined after that point, with heritage players like Keiron Cunningham and Iestyn Harris keeping the Red Dragon flag flying from time to time.
Success for Great Britain seemed to decline at much the same time as the number of Welsh players in rugby league.
The Lions concept itself was mothballed in 2007, as the RFL looked to secure more Sport England funding for rugby league.
Somewhat naively, it was also felt that breaking up the Lions would lead to more development in the Celtic countries.
In fact, it led to the reverse happening and the game in those countries heading into almost terminal decline by 2013, as heritage players decided that playing for England offered them a better international career, which it did.
Thankfully, in Wales there were plenty to keep the league flame burning, and we now have a situation where Welsh players are scattered around the various divisions of the European domestic game.
There are also increasing numbers of Welsh players turning up at Super League academies, which promises much for the future.
So with Ian Watson on board and Regan Grace likely to be in the squad, perhaps the Welsh influence is returning at last.
Let’s hope so, as the Lions seem to do better with a bit of dragon’s fire in their bellies.