FLASHBACK: NOVEMBER 1996 (UK)

NOVEMBER 1996

Great Britain’s injury hit squad battled hard before losing 32-12 to New Zealand in the Third Test at Christchurch’s Lancaster Park, the Kiwis completing a clean sweep of the home series.

With a dozen players having returned home because of injuries and cost cutting measures, British coach, Phil Larder’s plans were badly hit, as he struggled to find enough fit players. Reluctantly, he accepted six players’ offers to play, despite carrying injuries. They were skipper, Andy Farrell; Bobby Goulding, Stuart Spruce, Kris Radlinski, Alan Hunte and Daryl Powell.

The Kiwis’ 20-point margin broke their previous best against Britain, achieved twice on the Lions’ 1962 tour of New Zealand. The series was a personal triumph for Kiwi skipper and fullback, Matthew Ridge, who scored a try and kicked 11 goals and one field goal.

Ridge, a member of Manly-Warringah’s Grand final winning side, was a renowned stirrer on the field, and was true to form after scoring a try in the 69th minutes of the Third Test, when he taunted a British player. Powell’s response led to him being sent from the field by Australian referee, Steven Clark on a charge of using foul and abusive language.

It was the 30th Test match for British forward, Denis Betts from Wigan, who equalled the appearance record for a forward, held by Cliff Watson.

Britain’s Pacific tour had started in promising fashion with Test match wins over Papua New Guinea (32-30) and Fiji (72-4) in Lae and Nadi respectively, as well as wins over a PNG Presidents XIII in Mount Hagen and a Fiji Presidents XIII in Lautoka.

The New Zealand leg of the tour began with a 22-22 draw with a Lion Red Cup XIII in Auckland, but it was all downhill from there. The Lions were beaten 30-22 by a Presidents XIII in Wellington, and then three days later lost the First Test 17-12 in Auckland.

The Maori accounted for Britain 40-28 in Whangarei, and then the Kiwis, coached by Frank Endacott, wrapped up the series with a 18-15 win in the Second Test at Palmerston North.

Morale was high in the touring squad until just before the Second Test, when British League chief executive, Maurice Lindsay ordered the return of 12 (later reduced to 11) of the squad’s 32 players, in a cost cutting measure. The drastic action was taken as the tour headed for a loss of 279,000 pounds, and came at the same time as staff redundancies were taking place at league headquarters in Leeds.

This was at the height of the Super League ‘War’, with Lindsay having boasted 12 months earlier that with the backing of News Limited, rugby league was about to enter a new golden age. British superstars, Jason Robinson and Gary Connolly were refused permission to tour by the Australian Rugby League, which had them under contract. The Wigan pair then took up lucrative winter spells with rugby union clubs, Robinson at Bath and Connolly at London Harlequins. British hooker, Lee Jackson was also refused permission to tour because of his ARL contract at Newcastle Knights.

Halifax winger, John Bentley declined the invitation to tour because his wife had just given birth. A few days later he joined Newcastle Rugby Union in Britain’s north east. Bentley would go on to tour South Africa with the British and Irish Lions the following year. Rugby Union had gone professional in 1996, largely in response to raids on the amateur code by rugby league scouts armed with cash from News Ltd., and to a lesser extent, the Kerry Packer backed Australian Rugby League.

The major surprise among the selected tourists was London Broncos’ 23-year-old five eighth, Tulsen Tollett, who became the first Australian raised player to be selected for a British Lions’ tour. Born of English parents in Hastings, Sussex, Tollett was six when the family moved to Australia.

In other news from November 1996: Australian, Peter Mulholland was appointed coach of Paris St Germaine, while Greater Manchester cub, Oldham announced they had signed Australians, Nathan Turner and Brett Goldspink from South Queensland Crushers and Western Reds respectively.

The 1996 Great Britain touring squad

Gary Connolly in an attacking frame of mind (Picture Andrew Varley).

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