Lions tour 2019: New Zealand vs Great Britain talking points

Great Britain’s winter tour moves to Christchurch on Saturday morning for the second Test against New Zealand.

The Lions were edged out 12-8 against the Kiwis in Auckland last week and another win for Michael Maguire’s men would wrap up their first series win over Great Britain for 21 years.

We take a look at the big talking points as Wayne Bennett’s side aim to stop that from happening and chalk up their first victory of this winter’s tour…

  • Hardaker, Philbin out of second Test

  • Terry O’Connor’s GB memories

  • NZ recall Johnson and Smith for second Test

No place for Grace

A penny for the thoughts of Regan Grace, who has been left kicking his heels for much of this winter after being overlooked for Great Britain’s tour of the Southern Hemisphere.

The St Helens flyer was part of the Wales team for the World Cup Nines, but many were mystified that he failed to make the cut for the Lions’ winter Test series as Wayne Bennett took just two specialist wingers in Jermaine McGillvary and Ryan Hall after Grace’s club-mate Tommy Makinson was injured in the Grand Final.

With Hall having suffered a dislocated knee in last Saturday’s 12-8 defeat to New Zealand which ruled him out of this weekend’s second Test against the Kiwis and the tour closer against Papua New Guinea, Bennett has called up Leeds Rhinos’ Ash Handley.

The reason given was because Handley had already been given all of the vaccinations needed to travel to Papua New Guinea, although Super League’s joint-second highest try-scorer in 2019 will not link up with the Great Britain squad in time to face New Zealand.

A further injury suffered by Zak Hardaker, who was initially slated to start in Hall’s place against the Kiwis this week, means the Lions are now in the bizarre situation of turning to half-back Blake Austin to take the vacant place out wide on Saturday.

Bennett’s comments on Handley’s call-up also furthered the belief among some pundits that players from Scotland, Wales and Ireland are being overlooked in favour of those who are involved with the England set-up.

“He was in the Nines (with England), he’s a kid on the up,” Bennett told rugbyleaguehub.com. “He’s in the Knights programme.

“We’re trying to bring young players out of the Knights programme as well and he only played recently.

“We know the player because he was with us in the Nines and he was with half the squad here. It just makes the transition easier.”

Wayne Bennett on Ash Handley’s call-up

“We know the player because he was with us in the Nines and he was with half the squad here. It just makes the transition easier.”

Johnson returns for Kiwis

New Zealand have been forced into a change because of injury too, with Shaun Johnson making an immediate return to the team in the halves after Kieran Foran suffered a shoulder injury in the opening minutes of the first Test against Great Britain.

Kiwis head coach Michael Maguire had no hesitation in turning to Johnson again, with the Cronulla Sharks half having been dropped following the defeat to Australia in the Oceania Cup the previous week.

Johnson accepted the decision with good grace and admitted his performance against the Kangaroos was not good enough, but the maverick 29-year-old is determined to be back to his best as New Zealand aim to seal their first series win over the Lions since 1998.

“I’ve got certain standards of my own performance, I know whether I’ve met them or not,” Johnson told the New Zealand Herald.

“It’s often the case that you’re your harshest critic at the best of times so I’ve got certain standards I want to play at and that’s all I’m looking at doing this weekend.

“I’m sure if I do that then everyone will be happy.”

Meanwhile, Maguire has opted to recall Brandon Smith to the starting line-up after the hooker was axed from the side at short notice prior to last week’s win over Great Britain in Auckland.

Lack of tries a worry?

One common theme running through the first two Tests of this winter’s Lions tour have been the low number of tries scored.

Great Britain have managed to cross the whitewash just twice in the losses to the Tonga Invitational XIII and New Zealand – although Huddersfield Giants man McGillvary was unfortunate not to add a second in the dying seconds against the Kiwis when he was tackled inches out by Kenny Bromwich.

As a result, John Bateman and Daryl Clark are the only two players to have tries to their name in a Great Britain shirt so far this winter.

Head coach Wayne Bennett shrugged off any concerns about his side’s struggles in getting over the try-line in the wake of last Saturday’s 12-8 defeat to New Zealand and winger McGillvary has tried not to dwell on his agonising miss in Auckland.

“I was disappointed for two days, but now I’ve moved on from it. I want to make amends.”

Jermaine McGillvary

“It comes with the territory,” McGillvary said. “I should be finishing those. It was my fault, if I had scored we would have drawn or potentially won the game.

“It’s what happens when you’re a winger. You’re basically a goalkeeper, when you make a mistake, it’s massive.

“I’ve had it a lot of my career, but I’ve got tough skin. I was disappointed for two days, but now I’ve moved on from it. I want to make amends.”

Refereeing in the spotlight

It is not just the Lions who have struggled to find a way to the try-line in their first two matches of the winter, because – as Bennett was quick to point out in his post-match press conference – so have their opponents.

Tonga only managed two tries against the Lions through Michael Jennings and Sione Katoa, while Jamayne Isaako and Corey Harawira-Naera got one apiece for the Kiwis in another low-scoring contest last week.

It has been suggested the way the games are being officiated has contributed to that, with international matches being controlled by one on-field referee as in Super League – English official Chris Kendall in the first two Tests of the tour – rather than the two-referee system used in the NRL.

Great Britain hooker Josh Hodgson believes not having an extra set of eyes on the field means players are able to engage in tactics at the ruck which allow them to illegally slow down the play-the-ball without being caught, disrupting the flow of the game and leading to scrappier contests.

“Referees have a tough job but at the same time it was so slow, for both teams,” Hodgson said in the wake of the first Test against New Zealand.

“Players are finding their feet and the referees are still letting them (the defending team) pile men on and slow it down when they’re the dominant one in the carry.

“I’m not having a whinge because we’ve lost, I thought both teams were trying to capitalise on slowing the ruck speed down.

“But for an entertaining game, you want that ruck speed quicker. It opens the game up and you see a bit more of a free-flowing game.”

Probable teams

Great Britain: Jonny Lomax, Jermaine McGillvary, Jack Hughes, Jake Connor, Blake Austin, Gareth Widdop, Jackson Hastings, Chris Hill, Josh Hodgson, Tom Burgess, John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead, James Graham

Interchange: Josh Jones, Daryl Clark, Alex Walmsley, Luke Thompson

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