Captain Fran King has decided to call it a day on the international front after leading the England Community Lions on their three-game tour of New Zealand writes Trevor Hunt.
The cream of the community game may be bruised and battered after winning just one of their three matches but they can take pride in the way they were competitive throughout, after a tour that saw them depart with new friends and memories that they will never forget.
That was pretty much how King, the England captain and centre of the Wath Brow Hornets club, summed it up as he announced that at the ripe old age of 31, he has decided that his international Rugby League traveling days are over.
“I’ve had a longer innings than most,” revealed Fran, “and there can be no bigger honour than to captain your country.
“It has just been incredible and this bunch of lads, the coaches, the way that the tour has been run and the games that we have played have all just added up to a marvellous experience which is one that I and I’m sure the rest of the lads won’t forget.
“I toured South Africa in 2014, then Fiji in 2016 and now this. But the New Zealand tour has been a far bigger challenge than anything we have encountered before. South Africa were learning the game, Fiji had skills but weren’t as physical, but New Zealand were the real challenge.
“They had everything! Power, speed, skill and a tenacity that none of the other countries we have visited have.
“You want to test yourself to challenge against the best you can and this tour has certainly pushed us further than we have been before. But I don’t think we were outclassed. We pushed them all the way and, yes, we did lose two, but the physical demands on us to play three games in eight days is tough, especially after flying all this way, and maybe with a bit more time to recover between games we may have won both the games we lost.”
He added: “It’s been an incredible journey in so many ways, but now it’s time to concentrate on my family and life back home.”
Fran is typical of the 22 players and the coaching staff of Richard Owen and Richard Knight on a tour that saw England win their opening game against the North Island Select 32-18 in Taupo within 48 hours of stepping off the plane.
It was a result that shocked the New Zealand selectors. England then headed to Rotorua and three days later took on the NZ Maoris, where the home side capped off a two-day Maori cultural festival with a 40-18 success.
Then the final game was played on the Friday before the New Zealand versus Great Britain match in Auckland, and this time the New Zealand Residents X111 claimed a 28-12 success.
In each game the England side competed well and, against the Maoris, may have had real shout of victory but for a punishing 13-2 penalty count against them.
All three games were televised live by NZ SKY Sports with former Kiwi international and Hull FC favourite Richie Barnett amongst the commentary team, who have all been complimentary on the way the England players have played, on the standard of their coaches Richard Owen and Richard Knight, and on their management led by Alan Davidson – and, most importantly to them, the quality of the TV entertainment on offer.
But it is off the field too where the English lads have picked up a real buzz about what New Zealand life and culture has been like – as the only non-National Conference League player in the squad, Dave Kennedy of Orrell St James reveals.
“It has been an incredible experience on the field, and to play with these players at this level has been amazing,” he said.
“I am certain most of them could play at Championship level without much difficulty.
“But off the field we have seen some amazing sights and being given an understanding of New Zealand and Maori culture, and what it all means. And how their nation has developed has been terrific.
“Off the field the players have been gentle and welcoming, yet on it they are suddenly a kind of alter-ego that is all power and aggression. The wonders of the thermal pools and geysers, the great coastal scenery and the way of life they lead has been an amazing experience.
“I never thought I would get this chance and can’t thank my club and everybody involved enough for giving me this opportunity.”
When all this is said and done, we tend to forget that the players and coaches have all paid around £2,500 for the privilege of representing their country and pushing the boundaries of Rugby League at international level.
All that to get knocked around on a punishing schedule that the professionals wouldn’t entertain, and maybe that is something to be addressed for the future.
But the Kiwis were delighted, as the NZ National Football Operations Manager, Mike Kerrisk summed up.
“They have been particularly pleasurable to have with us,” he said. “They have been competitive in every game and their win against North Island had us all sitting up and taking notice.
“Some of their players are really first class and it was a pity that Chris Siddons was injured for the third game as he would have made a difference; we all rated him as outstanding in a very good squad of players.
“But this has not been just about the football, and as much as they may have enjoyed New Zealand it has been good for our communities to get to know them and for the players to get a taste of international Rugby League that makes them want more.
“It’s been a huge success.”