Saturday could be the final match of the final tour Great Britain ever embark on.
If so, it will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Even victory over Papua New Guinea, a side who will boast players from League 1 sides Barrow and Doncaster on Saturday, will do nothing to salvage what has been a disastrous, brand-damaging month.
Three straight defeats have been disappointing but not embarrassing. There is no shame in losing to world class opposition in New Zealand and Tonga.
But the issues extend far beyond the bland, uninspiring rugby dished up on the pitch. Much further. It is off the pitch where the issues rest.
When the return of the Lions after a 12-year absence was first announced, there was near game-wide approval. It was the latest step in the planned revival of international rugby.
Yet what followed was anything but.
Squad selection is a matter of opinion but the decision to select six halfbacks and two wingers was baffling from the outset. Inevitably, injuries have occurred and that has resulted in halfbacks playing on the wing, wingers sat at home and other halfbacks sat in the stands.
Bennett has tried to justify this by saying throughout the tour he would try different halfback combinations. Yet he will start Gareth Widdop and Jackson Hastings for the fourth straight game in Port Moresby on Saturday. Jake Trueman will end the tour having not played a single minute, George Williams could be the same after being named on the bench against the Kumuls, while Jonny Lomax has played at fullback, despite his outstanding form in the halves for Super League champions St Helens. Blake Austin, meanwhile, has played twice – on the wing.
“If we were going to have a stumble this was the year to do it in,” was a stand-out comment from Bennett’s post-match press conference following the third defeat of the series.
Seemingly, it is lost on Bennett that he is not coaching England this year. He is coaching Great Britain. There is no other year for a stumble.
To further confuse matters, Kevin Sinfield, the RFL’s rugby director, and his attempts to justify the decision to pick Austin on the wing over Ash Handley, flown over especially to play against Papua New Guinea.
“Do we give a jersey away because someone has flown for 24 hours to get here, or do we give a jersey to someone who is the right man for the job,” he said in staunch defence of the selection process.
Sinfield’s comments suggest the priority is to win but Bennett has trivialised the importance of results and put more focus on progress. So which is it?
Either way, certain decisions have been mind-boggling. To suggest a halfback, one who admittedly more metres than any other Great Britain player playing on the wing last week, but a halfback nevertheless, is a stronger option than one of Super League’s specialist wingers is an insult to Handley, even before considering he flew across the world to be in contention. At the same time, it does nothing for England and its aspirations for the 2021 World Cup. Handley now remains without international experience while Austin continues in a position he will not play in down the line.
Six members of the Great Britain side who featured in the 23-8 defeat to the Kiwis will be 32 or older come the World Cup. Meanwhile, 20-year-old Trueman, widely considered to be England’s next top halfback, hasn’t played a single game after being taken on a six-week tour fresh off playing 31 games this year. He will now miss the majority of pre-season, a crucial period for any young player in their development, and most probably go into another long season under-prepared. It’s unjustifiable.
There appears to be a clash in objectives and priorities at the top. In the end, neither coach nor officials have achieved what they hoped. Results have been poor, the reception at home has been one of anger or apathy and the glorious reprise of the brand has been flat.
Beyond the playing side, Bennett’s attitude towards the importance of the Great Britain brand comes into question. His suggestion that Handley was called up instead of Regan Grace because he’s English was borderline outrageous. This is not England. Did anyone tell him?
To say he has insulted it is unfair but to accuse him of not understanding it is not.
The tour has left RFL decision-makers with an unenviable one. Either replace Bennett halfway through a World Cup cycle or retain him and open yourself to scathing scrutiny.
Great Britain’s glorious return should have been the Northern Hemisphere’s triumphant story to go alongside Tonga’s glorious rise in the South.
Instead, it will now most likely be consigned to history, with an almighty blotch splashed across a once-proud jersey.