WITH his famously steely public persona, Wayne Bennett rarely gets unruffled but even the Great Britain head coach himself had to admit their glorious welcome in Papua New Guinea has been a “bit overwhelming.”
It has been a troubled tour for the Lions who finish their four-week trip tomorrow but have still yet to enjoy a single victory.
Clearly, they should secure that against the Kumuls in Port Moresby, given the depth of quality in their ranks and far superior experience.
Bennett conceded: “I do have a soft spot for Papua New Guinea.
“People are so friendly and they love their rugby league so much here. It’s a bit overwhelming.
“It has been wonderful; the players have been out to some villages and schools and we have been so well received.
“It is a pleasure to be here.
“We are playing on Saturday in a great ground – Oil Search (Stadium) is a world-class facility – I am sure it will be a great crowd and it’ll be something that lives with the boys forever, the experience they had in Papua New Guinea.”
That said, for all the island’s fanatical rugby league fans – it is the country’s national sport – have treated the visitors like rock stars, following them around with garlands, cheering their every move and rejoicing at their mere sight, Bennett will be wary that the hosts could still yet act as silent assassins.
Granted, Papua New Guinea have only ever defeated the Lions – or England – once before, beating Malcolm Reilly’s 1990 tourists 20-18 amid chaotic scenes in Goroka when tear gas was dispersed on the swollen crowd.
However, given the state of disarray at times in Great Britain’s previous performances on this tour, losing out to a Tonga Invitational XIII and twice to New Zealand, they will sense the visitors could be uneasy heading in.
The Papuans were only narrowly defeated last week by Fiji, who secured the Oceania Cup with a nervy 22-20 win in Christchurch, and they have enough threat to pose the Lions issues.
Bennett conceded: “The big thing is respect.
“You’ve got to realise how good they are and how much ability they’ve got in the team.
“They’ve got NRL players in there as well as state league players, but they are all playing high-level competition now and I thought their performance against Fiji was outstanding,” he said.
“It was a great game to watch; they are entertaining and very skilful so our first and foremost thing is to realise we are playing a quality football team this week.
“This team has got a lot of good players in it and we need to be on our best.”
Leeds Rhinos second-row Rhys Martin is the PNG captain and one of the more familiar names in their ranks who excelled against Fiji.
The Lions have far from excelled so far but Bennett maintained his belief that they have not been as bad as many people have suggested.
On the forthcoming Test match, he added: “It’s important to us.
“They’ve all been important to us.
“We’ve played some pretty good football in the three of them.
“We haven’t always been at our best, but we’ve been good and more than competitive.
“To do that on the weekend is my aim; to make sure we go out there and try and play to our standards.
“That will give us our best chance of playing well.”
As the debate continues about the make-up of a Great Britain squad that has struggled, the Australian coach insisted it is “not true” he favours English players.
Bennett, of course, is also in charge of England and he said: “The best players are here.
“Lachlan Coote’s Scottish. Another of the boys Joe (Philbin) has played for Ireland and there was another couple who were due to come but got injured and so couldn’t.
“We picked what we thought was the best team; nobody looked at their nationalities.
“That was how it was picked,” he said.
“Obviously it’s predominantly English but it’s been that way for a long time. It just hasn’t changed now.”