Papua New Guinea... Tour memories that will last forever for Great Britain’s Tony ‘Casper’ Smith

ASK Tony ‘Casper’ Smith about touring Papua New Guinea with Great Britain almost a quarter-of-a-century ago and the recollections are an unusual mixture of genuine fear and trepidation as well as sublime joy.

Great Britain's Tony Smith in action. Picture: Andrew Varley
Great Britain's Tony Smith in action. Picture: Andrew Varley

It was at the dawn of Super League when the then Castleford Tigers half-back headed off and made his Lions debut against the Kumuls on the 1996 trip.

Yet it would become a farcical tour; Phil Larder’s side beat PNG 32-30 in Lae and went on to vanquish Fiji but in New Zealand they lost all three Tests and even failed to win any of three midweek games.

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Moreover, players were sent home to cut costs, some having to pay towards their own air fares.

Wayne Bennett gets a warm welcome in Papua New Guinea.

Great Britain will play back in rugby league-mad Papua New Guinea for the first time since on Saturday, this time finishing their tour there having lost two Tests against the Kiwis and another versus a Tonga Invitational XIII.

Smith, now aged 49, recalled to The Yorkshire Post: “What I remember most was the culture shock. If you imagine what it’s like now – when times have moved on – can you imagine what it was like 23 years ago?

“There was people up in the trees watching games as they couldn’t afford to get in.

“We were in Mount Hagen for a midweek game and I remember being on the minibus going to the match. They only held about 11 or 12 each so we had to take two minibuses and Brian McDermott was on mine.

“You had to drive through the crowd and they were just banging on the windows relentless. It was as if you were going to war.

“Then you had to get off it and realised you had to walk through this huge crowd to get to play. It was scary at the time but now I look back and realise it was great.

“It was one hell of an experience and you couldn’t put a price on it. At the time, you take it for granted, getting paid, doing something you love and going to a country like that.

“But it’s not until you’ve retired and had time to reflect when you realise just how good it was, memories that will last forever.”

A year previously, Smith, who played almost 200 games for hometown Castleford, featured for England in the 1995 World Cup final at Wembley.

However, life on the Pacific Ocean island was so different.

“All they wanted to do was slap you,” he said, when asked about the fervent support, people from the largely rural and mountainous country travelling hundreds of miles to see the touring side.

“Not to hurt you but because, back then at least, they very rarely saw white people. They didn’t know what we were like.

“Although they respected you – they love rugby league – and looked up to you they couldn’t believe you were a different colour.

“It was a scary place at times, if I’m honest. We’d guards outside our hotel. You never felt in danger for your life but it really took you out of your comfort zone.

“I’d love to do it again now, though. Just to see how PNG has progressed as a country. I spoke to (Castleford second-row) Oliver Holmes about his experiences there last year with England Knights and he was saying how great it was.

“And you can see what they’re doing on the field as well with the women’s game progressing and all the players they have in the NRL and over here. They’re really proud of their heritage and what they do for rugby league.”

Smith scored two tries in the tour opener against a PNG President’s XIII alongside the likes of Jimmy Lowes, Karle Hammond and the late Steve Prescott.

“That’s why I remember Brian McDermott,” he said.

“He actually passed me the ball a couple of times. I can still remember it to this day that game at Mount Hagen.

“After those two tries I got put on the bench for the Test so it shows that midweek team was worth it. I went on at hooker and played about half an hour in the Test but that would do me in that kind of heat, to be fair.

“It was absolutely unbelievable that heat and humidity. There was no air.

“I’d never experienced anything like it. And the Papuans were so physical. They were all a similar size. They’d just pick you up and drive you into the ground.”

Smith, who won the inaugural Super League Grand Final in 1998 after his move to Wigan Warriors, carried on to New Zealand but had to head home early due to an infected elbow.

Wayne Bennett’s current Lions side have come under fire for their poor displays so far but Smith – now Castleford’s academy coach – said: “I don’t think you can judge just how good we are as a nation until we get the right people in the right positions.

“We know Blake Austin is a good player but he’s not a winger is he? There’s some really good players in this country but don’t judge on this one tour.”