Rugby League Expert & Columnist
Last Updated: 22/10/19 3:24pm
Ahead of Great Britain’s return to the international stage, Sky Sports rugby league expert Phil Clarke recalls his Lions debut in unusual circumstances and surroundings…
Most young rugby league players dream of making their Test debut against Australia in an Ashes decider or against New Zealand at Wembley in a televised game.
They imagine the glory and euphoria of running out and winning to the cheers of British fans, but my introduction to the international game was slightly different.
I was lucky to be selected – as my old Wigan and Great Britain team-mate Martin Offiah has reminded me since that day – for the 1990 Lions Tour to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.
Several star names had pulled out prior to the trip and, with just a handful of first-team games under my belt, I was given a ticket on the plane.
We met as a group at Central Park in Wigan to set off on the journey to the other side of the world and, as 19-year-old, it was about as exciting as it can get.
I like to be organised and have my things all nice and tidy, but realised that I had to adapt quickly when I got to Manchester Airport to find that some player had packed a dozen jam scones into my carry-on luggage!
We arrived in Papua New Guinea about 36 hours later and it was a bit like landing on another planet. The sights, sounds and smells were like nothing I had ever seen before, but I loved it.
I have always been quite lucky in life and this continued when I was given the best room-mate you could ever get on a Lions tour. I was put in a twin room with Roy Powell, who was the kindest and nicest rugby league player I have ever come across.
Your room-mate can have a massive bearing on how well you enjoy your tour and Roy helped me so much. As a Lion from the 1988 tour he knew the dos and don’ts, and taught me very well.
My first experience of a Lions Test match overseas was as a reserve in the remote Papua New Guinean Highlands of Goroka on May 27, 1990. The ground capacity was approximately 12,000, but thousands more had walked for days to come and see this game, and were not that keen to walk away when they were told that the ground was now full.
Some of them had literally hunted to feed themselves on the way to the ground – it could have been a three or four-day trek – and wanted to see some rugby after making that sort of effort.
Many attempted to climb over the walls and even into the giant trees that surrounded the perimeter fence. To keep order, the relatively untrained and inexperienced police decided to try out their new tear gas and released canisters into the air. This blew back onto the pitch and made breathing almost impossible for a few minutes.
However, this wasn’t the scariest aspect of the day. At the final hooter there was a pitch invasion with thousands of locals, some carrying the weapons that they used to hunt on the way to the game, sprinting onto the middle of the pitch.
For a moment, every one of the squad thought that they were going to die! But it was, in fact, an outpouring of joy from the locals who wanted celebrate the fact their heroes had just beaten us 20-18. This wasn’t how I had imagined international rugby league.
A week later I was selected for my Great Britain debut at the Lloyd Robson Oval in Port Moresby for the second Test. By this time I felt I was 29, having aged about 10 years in my three weeks in PNG! As a young man, you grow up very quickly on tour Down Under.
A rollicking from head coach Mal Reilly, plus the fact that we had adjusted to life in this beautiful country, meant that we had our act together and didn’t need a try from this teenage back row substitute to make much difference as we ran out 40-8 winners.
To the best of my knowledge, the game was not televised or recorded and no video of it exists – but at least that means all of my mistakes were not shown!
In all seriousness though, nobody ever forgets their Lions debut no matter where it takes place. You join a special club, and are aware of the history and legends that have gone before you.
You never forget the players who were there with you either. Ones like Roy and Mike Gregory, who are sadly no longer with us, or greats like Jonathan Davies – who was not only one of the best players in world rugby but also one of the funniest as well.
Good luck to all of the 2019 Great Britain squad on tour, I hope you enjoy every minute of it.