IT has been eight long years since a side from these shores defeated Australia and the man who masterminded that victory labels doing it Down Under “the toughest challenge in world sport.”
Brian Noble was at the helm when Great Britain memorably beat the Kangaroos during a fractious and, at times, downright brutal 23-12 success in Sydney during the 2006 Tri-Nations.
Steve McNamara, his one-time assistant at Bradford Bulls, is the latest coach tasked with replicating that feat – and more, by winning a first tournament since the 1972 World Cup – with England getting the Four Nations underway in Brisbane this morning.
They face Samoa ahead of Australia v New Zealand, the second part of a double-header instalment, before tackling the hosts themselves in Melbourne a week tomorrow.
Noble, Super League’s most successful coach who led Great Britain from 2004 to 2006, is well versed in the complexities of tour life and the differences between club and international coaching.
Speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “That was just an awesome experience in 2006 and a great trip.
“I bump into most of the players from that tour and there’s some lifelong memories there.
“If things had happened a little differently, maybe we could have gone on to actually win it.
“But it was the toughest challenge then in world sport for a variety of reasons. To be able to gel together people from different clubs when at least 50 per cent of the team are Super League Grand Finalists is difficult.
“They come in straight after a week of either being miserable as sin or being elated and having had a few too many beers.
“Getting them then focused again for a major tournament – which is like another four Grand Finals to get to another – is a challenge.
“The majority of your players are mentally under a heck of a lot of pressure to reproduce the kind of form they have during the season and don’t forget it is the end of the season as well.
“That challenge of galvanizing people, getting the right combinations, the right people and getting them all to buy into what you want to achieve is the tough part of the job as they can all play.
“In 2006, we’d played 10 more games through the year than our competitors had done, too.
“There was the overseas element of travel, we didn’t get a rest – it was game, game, game and game for four weeks – while our competitors (Australia and New Zealand) had rests each fortnight.
“All those things made it an unbelievable challenge and we did get really close.”
Having lost their opening game 18-14 to New Zealand in Christchurch, Sean Long inspired that famous win in Australia.
The game became infamous for Kangaroos forward Willie Mason flooring prop Stuart Fielden – who had just become the world’s most expensive player after leaving Bradford for Wigan in a £450,000 deal – with a punch and then taking Long out with a late elbow to the head.
But the Lions, with captain Jamie Peacock immense, shrugged off Australia’s violent approach to win with tries from the Leeds Rhinos star, Paul Wellens, Lee Gilmour and Hull FC winger Gareth Raynor.
It was their first win on Australian soil since 1992 and, of course, there has not been one anywhere since.
Great Britain were swiftly brought down to earth when they were hammered 34-4 by the Kiwis in Wellington the following week, which became infamous in its own right for Long’s drunken flight back to Manly which led to the St Helens scrum-half quitting the camp.
Noble surprisingly replaced him with Hull’s Richard Horne for the final must-win Test against Australia rather than Leeds’s Rob Burrow who finished being unused for the entire tournament.
They fell 33-10 despite being just 12 points behind heading into the latter stages and failed to make the final.
Asked if things would have been different if Long had stayed, Noble replied: “Maybe. We had other injuries as well losing (Brian) Carney and maybe if the coach had been better in that last game when we needed to win, in respect of the balance of the side and picking people, who knows?
“You can second guess yourself all the time but you make decisions for the right reasons and what a trip. A couple of circumstances took it away from us - the first game against the Kiwis when Danny McGuire scores at the end and it’s adjudicated he didn’t. If we’d won that game, we’d have been in the final….
“But what a brilliant trip. I can only praise all the players for what they tried to achieve there.”
Noble, 53, is confident this current England side can enjoy success now especially with Australia having seen so many players pull out injured.
“The squad Steve’s picked does have a fresh look about it and I think it’s very talented and quick, too,” said the Yorkshireman, who also captained Great Britain on the 1984 Ashes tour of Asutralia.
“There’s some outstanding leaders in there and plenty who have combatted well in the NRL.
“Not having (Johnathan) Thurston in front of you is a big boost and Billy Slater and Jarryd Hayne, too, but a fella called (Greg) Inglis doesn’t go bad for the Aussies and the thing we’ve said about them over the years is they have two or three teams they can pick that are equally strong.
“They won’t want to be giving up anything certainly to the Poms. It’s got the makings of a terrific tournament. You have to be on your game, be confident in what you want to achieve and how you will do that.
“Yet they are evenly-matched teams as we saw in the semi-finals of the World Cup last year.
“England were the better team that day but they got beat as New Zealand created a moment when they had to do in the last seconds.
“And that’s what it’s about: creating moments – not momentum – and executing them.”