GRAND FINAL DAY LOCKED IN | Three big fixtures next Sunday at Sydney's ANZ Stadium! Burleigh and Ill...
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Two weeks on from the first bad night of Brian Carney's international career and the wounds are still raw. The former Gaelic footballer from County Wicklow bounced back impressively from his nightmare against New Zealand in Great Britain's first match of the Tri-Nations series with a strong performance against Australia last weekend but the stick he received after that opening game at Loftus Road has left a lasting impact.
"I'll tell you what it did," he reflected this week. "Sitting in a press conference and getting surrounded by 15 journalists and having one talk to Paul Johnson, who had just scored a Test hat-trick - it's a slight on our team. That's all I've got to say on that.
"When I have a bad day I'll cop it, but find a balance, put things in perspective. It just seemed to be the Brian Carney show. It disappoints me and embarrasses me that good performances are overlooked. You've got to remind some people from time to time that it's a team sport," he added pointedly. "Definitely not the players, you've not got to remind them."
When asked if he was expecting another aerial bombardment from New Zealand's kickers after his confidence melted away under a series of high balls in Britain's opening defeat, Carney rolled his eyes and sighed.
"High balls is part of the job as a winger. A cop doesn't expect to do a day's work without meeting criminals, you know what I mean. He'd love to but he knows what to expect. A big forward's going to expect somebody small and fast to run at him, a winger's going to expect high balls. I don't need to start telling youse that do I? I'm not telling you anything new."
Carney, who had earned nothing but praise in his previous eight Test appearances over the last two years, may eventually come to see such bruising criticism as useful preparation for the next stage of his highly unorthodox sporting journey, because when Britain's Tri-Nations commitments are over he will fly to Australia - initially for a year with the Newcastle Knights before joining the Gold Coast Titans for their first season in the National Rugby League in 2007. The media spotlight burns much more intensely on rugby league players in New South Wales and Queensland, although he reckons three years in the goldfish bowl of Wigan has readied him for anything.
For the moment he insists he is enjoying his new role as Britain's vice-captain - for which he was a surprise appointment, considering the small handicap of not technically being British - despite the personal and collective disappointment of the last two weeks. "Walking out at the JJB last Saturday I had friends come over from Ireland to Wigan and all they could talk about was the atmosphere of the game," he said.
"How could you not want to be involved in that? It hits home at times like that how important rugby league is to the people of the rugby league heartlands. When they're coming from Hull and standing in their Hull jerseys and there's people from Doncaster and Keighley and that. Every game you play for Great Britain is a historic event.
"We had a dinner last Monday for Mike Gregory [the former Lions captain and Wigan coach, who is battling a debilitating viral illness] and it was attended by guys like Martin Offiah, Garry Schofield, Bobbie Goulding and famous players from the 50s and 60s - to be honest with you I had to ask who they were because I've not grown up with the game. They've all played in these historic games and they still show pride in it today."
Britain are effectively playing for pride tonight against New Zealand and next Saturday against Australia, with the remote possibility of improving their points difference by 36 to qualify for the final little more than a red herring.
"D'you know, I'm not sure of the sums," added Carney. "All we can do is go out and try and win the games. If the things you've practised all week come off, you win the game and sometimes you win comfortably. But you don't ever go out and plan to get a certain amount of points in a game, it doesn't work that way."
Carney will have his own personal demons to exorcise as he again opposes Manu Vatuvei, New Zealand's latest huge young wing discovery who gave him such a torrid time two weeks ago. "He's a big human being but they are all across the park," he admitted. "That's one of their key strengths, their size and physical presence. But you've got to cope with that. It's not like you turn up on the day and get shocked that they're big men.
"I was disappointed in my own personal performance in that first game, I've gone over that before. I knew I was better than that. So it was important for me to play to near what I can do last week. But at the end of the day we've still ended up losing a Test match. That's the overwhelming disappointment. I'm sick of saying we were close."
After such a traumatic fortnight, it would be good to see Britain's Irish eyes smiling again.
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Andy Wilson is a well-known rugby league writer whose work appears in The Guardian and The Observer (UK) newspapers. We thank them in re-prodicing his article.