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Opinion

Why UK Rugby League needs the GB Lions

13 February 2020, 7:47AM 0 Comments

Written by Zack Wilson

Photo by BBC Sport

The recent Great Britain Lions tour to the Pacific was a disaster.

It was a disaster on the pitch, of course, with four defeats to Tonga, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

It was a disaster in terms of selection, with an unbalanced squad selected that ignored Welsh players because they were…Welsh.

Regan Grace not being picked in a squad that was light on outside backs because he wouldn’t be playing for England next year against Australia was ridiculous.

Wayne Bennett has thankfully paid the price for his selection policy, which seemed to spring from an inability to treat the GB brand with any respect.

Bennett will now not be coaching England next year as a result, which is fair enough, but he’s been effectively sacked for his performance as coach of an entirely different team.

The tour was also a real opportunity for development work in the Celtic countries, especially Wales, which has produced a huge number of GB internationals of the past.

West Wales Raiders were knocked out of the Challenge Cup by amateur side Underbank Rangers recently in a disastrous result for Welsh rugby league.

That is a huge wake-up call for the game in the Principality, but the Welsh are having to scrap for development with one hand tied behind their back.

We have new development officers in Greater Manchester, where we have Salford, Oldham and Swinton as pro clubs, but precious little resource is spent on the Celtic nations.

Irishman Ronan Michael, on Huddersfield’s books and currently playing in Australia with the Canberra Raiders youth set-up, is an outlier, and the product of excellent work undertaken by local enthusiasts in Ireland.

The governing bodies in England have played little to no role in his development at all.

Players like him should be eyeing up a Lions tour place as a matter of course. The PR value of a man like him playing for the Lions would be huge in Ireland.

Of course, simply calling the team the GB Lions would not win many friends in Ireland, but the subtleties of national identity and sensitivity to the histories of countries other than Australia and England isn’t something rugby league does especially well.

Recently, in Scotland, the national rugby union side’s talismanic stand-off Finn Russell has been stood down from the squad due to issues around alcohol.

It would have been nice to have heard rumours about rugby league clubs circling for his signature.

If rugby league was confident as a sport then we should have seen a rumour or two at least discussed.

But the problem is that without a viable Lions team there is really no incentive for the likes of
Russell to move from union, even though his international career with Scotland could be over.

However much money you pay a player like him, it would be the challenge of taking on the Kangaroos and Kiwis that would really appeal.

The same can be said of players currently in the Scottish rugby league pyramid, such as Callum McLelland.

The young halfback starred in the Bravehearts’ World Cup qualifiers last year, and is a real prospect.

But, as things stand, if he develops into a world class player and becomes a real asset to the Scots, his English birth means that England can poach him at will, thanks to the absurd eligibility laws under which our game operates.

But if he knew that every two or four years there was a chance to compete for a Lions spot, the incentive to resist any attempts at poaching would be much stronger.

The existence of a Great Britain team is a complex topic – it pulls at strings of national identity at a time when the fabric that holds the countries of the United Kingdom together is being frayed.

But as the pinnacle of international representation for players from all over these islands it should be sacred.

Appointing coaches who do not even seem to understand the significant difference between England and Great Britain is to be avoided in future.

If the Lions are to be revived (and they should be) then they need to be treated as a integral, important and properly professional touring side.

If we were able to achieve that then we might be back on the road to having an international game, especially in Europe, that is a source of pride rather than awkward embarrassment.

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