Half measures not good enough for Great Britain

RICHARD de la RIVIERE reacts to the news that Great Britain will be revived and will tour Australia in 2019.

“THE Great Britain team will just be the England team in different jerseys!”

That’s been the most common reaction to last week’s news that Great Britain will tour the Southern Hemisphere in 2019 after a 12-year hiatus.

It seems a fair argument, although Matty Russell, Ben Flower and the young St Helens sensation Regan Grace might disagree.

But to look at it so superficially is to miss the glaring point that the Celtic nations have been severely hampered by defections to England since the Rugby Football League’s former boss Richard Lewis announced the demise of Great Britain.

The decision was taken because it was wrongly assumed that Ireland, Scotland and Wales would be strengthened.

But those sides were actually stronger when Great Britain played regularly and I base that assertion on the fact that ten Irish, Scottish or Welsh internationals pulled on the Great Britain jersey in 2001 and 2002.

For the record, they were Ireland’s Gary Connolly, Terry O’Connor, Barrie McDermott, Chris Joynt, Ryan Sheridan and James Lowes, along with Wales’s Lee Briers and Keiron Cunningham and Scotland’s Richard Horne and Lee Gilmour.

They were followed by Irishman Brian Carney in 2003 and Welshman Iestyn Harris in 2004.

So those who point out that a Great Britain 17 would be made up entirely of English internationals are only serving to highlight one of the major flaws of scrapping Great Britain in the first place.

It has proved a disastrous move, underlined no more so than in the unedifying Danny Brough saga in 2009 when the Scotland captain, having seen his dream of regular fixtures against Australia and New Zealand taken away from him, understandably decided to switch to England, only for coach Tony Smith – and subsequently Steve McNamara – to decide that the best halfback in Super League, with the possible exception of Briers, wasn’t good enough for them.

We can only imagine how a Briers-Brough pairing would have fared in the 2009 and 2011 Four Nations Finals when we were crying out for direction, creativity and a half-decent kicking game. Instead we had inadvertently made life easier for the Aussies.

As someone who was dismayed by the scrapping of Great Britain, and who has written dozens of articles complaining about it, you might think I would be delighted at news of its return.

Well, no!

It’s a fudge. A half-hearted compromise to try and please everybody.

The announcement delivered by Lewis to journalists at Red Hall eleven years ago did actually include a promise of occasional Great Britain tours, so all they’re doing now is delivering that pledge, albeit in rather tardy fashion.

The big mistake back then was to replace Great Britain as our main international team, and the big mistake now is that Great Britain aren’t coming back as our main international team.

It’s not misty-eyed nostalgia or history fuelling my argument here, although they are weighty factors for some.

It was the needless destruction of a successful brand and a sound structure, replaced with one that predictably ignited no end of nation hopping. Lewis failed to realise that putting those three nations on the same tier as England forced players into a binary choice, and many plumped for the white jersey.

After his announcement, I asked him if he was worried whether players would switch nations. He said no. It didn’t appear that it had even crossed his mind.

Later that day, I asked Joynt if he would have still turned out for Ireland in the 2000 World Cup if it had meant not playing for Great Britain in the 2001 Ashes Series. I knew what his answer would be. “Of course not!” he said. I suspect many of that great Ireland team would have agreed with him. Cunningham later told me he wouldn’t have played for Wales had Lewis’s new structure been in operation earlier.

Lewis unwittingly forced players to make a choice, and many turned their backs on Ireland, Scotland and Wales in favour of England. These included Garreth Carvell, Dave Halley and Rhys Evans from Wales, along with Ireland’s Mike McIlorum, Michael Platt, Chris Bridge and Ben Harrison. None managed to play regularly for England, but how Wales and Ireland could have done with them in the last few years!

Even now there are those like Ben Currie who are happy to play for one nation when young, and then switch to England when deemed good enough, which makes a mockery of the international game. And who can blame them when it became obvious that doing away with Great Britain was so flawed?

In the last decade I’ve spoken to many of the players affected and can’t recall any disagreeing with me. The following quote from Gilmour is very apt: “I find it a bit strange that they scrapped Great Britain and have really weakened Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the process. We have [had] a Super League team in Wales and we’ve had Magic Weekends in Scotland and Wales to promote the game there, yet they do this and players have withdrawn from the smaller nations as a result. It makes you wonder what they’re trying to do, in weakening Scotland, Wales and Ireland so much.”

If Rugby League really wants to make Ireland, Scotland and Wales as strong as possible, they need to listen to people like Gilmour and not de-incentivise the next generation of players – like Alex Walmsley and Danny Houghton, who could be playing for Scotland – from turning out for these teams. The way to do that is to revert to the old structure where Great Britain play every year against Australia or New Zealand, apart from in World Cups. Only then will top-grade players put their hands up for the Celtic nations on a regular basis.

What the RFL announced last week falls well short. The Lions tour in 2019 will be popular with players, but we are unlikely to see the best players from the Northern Hemisphere align themselves with the Celtic nations as several in Joynt’s era did.

And we never will, until Great Britain is fully restored.

This article first appeared in this week’s issue of League Express