AT LEAST those Great Britain fans who travelled thousands of miles to watch the Lions managed to witness a true classic.
Obviously, Saturday’s demoralising clash with New Zealand was not the classic in question.
That came afterwards when brilliant Tonga shocked world champions Australia – and the entire rugby league community – in the third and final game of Eden Park’s historic triple-header.
Let’s hope the British supporters, who must have been so dismayed by the predictable, conservative play of their own side, actually hung around to see that epic sporting drama unfold.
They would have been forgiven for instead just sloping off to one of Auckland’s many watering holes to drown sorrows after seeing ponderous Great Britain draw another blank on this tour.
A tour so many had looked forward to, being a first in 13 years, is fast in danger of becoming disastrous unless something is salvaged from Saturday’s second and final Test against the Kiwis in Christchurch.
Granted, the Lions’ opening 14-6 defeat against Tonga could arguably be passed as understandable being the first match of the trip. Ring-rusty maybe.
Moreover, given what Tonga then did to the Kangaroos – becoming the first second tier nation to ever beat the world champions when triumphing 16-12 – that first result, in hindsight, could even be seen as creditable.
However, anyone suggesting that would merely be desperately clutching at straws; the Lions have still yet to roar and are running out of time to do so. If they fail again this weekend – and they are down to one specialist winger after Ryan Hall was ruled out of the tour with a dislocated knee – they will head to Port Moresby to face Papua New Guinea under immense pressure to avoid the embarrassment of a whitewash.
But why? It is easy to understand Wayne Bennett’s tactics of attempting mistake-free rugby, completing at a high percentage in a bid to wear down opponents, even if it does mean there is hardly any ball movement.
The Lions did that. However, it is then imperative that chances – when they do eventually come after that initial grind – are taken.
That is where they failed badly against the Kiwis. They were level 2-2 at half-time after Gareth Widdop and Jamayne Isaako penalties but were undone by two tries in quick succession at the start of the second period from Isaako and Corey Harawira-Naera.
Yet they did not truly start to chance their arm until into the final quarter, Daryl Clark, the former Castleford Tigers hooker typically pepping them up from the bench as he so often does.
Still, after his try got them in touching distance, the tourists failed to prove clinical when those rare opportunities came.
Jermaine McGillvary was put away by Jonny Lomax, who was lively after replacing the dropped Lachlan Coote at full-back, but failed to see Zak Hardaker in support and was tackled instead.
McGillvary’s best chance, though, came in the 76th minute when he was denied as Kenny Bromwich got across with a desperate tackle the Huddersfield Giants winger losing grasp of the ball as he went over the line.
Two years ago, when he shone at the World Cup, McGillvary would have lapped up such a chance but he is the first to admit he has not had the best season.
Bennett, rather nobly, often selects players on the back of what they have achieved for him at international level rather their current club form. Unfortunately, perhaps that policy came back to bite him on Saturday. That said, McGillvary was not the only one to err at a crucial point. The Lions’ inept kicking game and poor last play options meant they did not create a repeat set until Widdop finally got a kick right in the 72nd minute.
Maddeningly, though, John Bateman then had the ball stolen off him on the second tackle from the resulting drop-out.
Of the two halves, Jackson Hastings looked more threatening and there could be few arguments if Widdop was replaced by the more creative Blake Austin in Christchurch. Wigan full-back Hardaker, already playing out of position at centre, will probably replace Hall on the wing.
Still, this was a chance lost against a troubled side who saw half-back Kieran Foran injured early and dropped hooker Brandon Smith for disciplinary reasons.
New Zealand: Tuivasa-Sheck; Maumalo, Nicoll-Klokstad, Manu, Isaako; Foran, Marshall; Tetevano, Nikorima, Waerea-Hargreaves, Nikora, Bromwich, Tapine. Substitutes: Hughes, Harawira-Naera, Ah Mau, Blair.
Great Britain: Lomax; McGillvary, Hardaker, Connor, Hall; Widdop, Hastings; Hill, Hodgson, Burgess, Bateman, Whitehead, Graham. Substitutes: Jones, Philbin, Clark, Walmsley.