Re-formed after an absence of 12 years, Great Britain lost all four matches on their tour of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and coach Wayne Bennett ultimately paid the price for the failure by losing his job.
Former Leeds and England forward Jamie Jones-Buchanan fears it may have been the last we will see of the Lions but rugby league historian Professor Tony Collins hails the tour as a success because the victories by Tonga and Papua New Guinea demonstrated the new-found depth of the international game.
The contrasting views epitomise the juxtaposition that has characterised rugby league for over a century and are encapsulated in “Once Were Lions” which is out now on the BBC iPlayer.
With the aid of unfettered access to the squad throughout their preparations for the tour and the journey itself through the southern hemisphere, viewers are given a rare, warts-and-all look at the pain and humour of a journey that had more downs than ups.
The honesty of the players shines through, not least from winger Jermaine McGillvary when he labels himself “the worst player in the world” after dropping the ball over the line in the second test against the Kiwis.
McGillvary also illustrates the extremes of rugby league by comparing his ability to walk through the streets of his hometown, Huddersfield, completely unnoticed, yet be mobbed by total strangers in Papua New Guinea who greet him as both a friend and a hero.
🚨 The behind-the-scenes documentary following the Great Britain Rugby League Lions on their 2019 tour to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea is now available on @BBCiPlayer.
⌨️ Search 'Once Were Lions' now. pic.twitter.com/Y2CBMkRrA5
— Rugby Football League (@TheRFL) November 21, 2020
As well as providing insight into the first tour down under for 23 years, the 70-minute documentary explores the sport’s northern roots and offers a look at its history through unseen archive and interviews with the likes of Martin Offiah and Henderson Gill.
Mike Benson, executive producer of Chalkboard – the company behind the documentary – said: “Once Were Lions is about much more than a rugby league tour… it is about forgotten towns and teams and a proud sport that’s in search of a future.
“Rugby league has always been tied to class, industry, stereotypes and politics – something it still struggles to escape and our film seeks to explore these themes.”
To watch Once Were Lions, click here.
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