By Peter Jessup
Three days out from their international against Great Britain, the Aotearoa Maori team, who will play the curtainraiser to Friday's Tri-Series rugby league final, did not have jerseys to wear on to the field.
It was only at 2pm last Saturday that coach Cameron Bell found out that the game was on.
First, a call to the Warriors. "No, Odell Manuel and Matt Spence aren't available."
He did not bother ringing the Australian NRL clubs.
And regardless of crowd and television audience figures on Friday, the Maori team will not gain a cent.
They are up against a Great Britain side who will be absolutely desperate to go home with one win. Should they lose this, the seedings for the World Cup next year will be Australia/New Zealand/Maori/England.
"I don't want to get into politics," said Bell as the team trained yesterday at the Otahuhu Leopards' ground - which had no goalposts. "The uncertainty hasn't helped but we've just got to get on with it."
The game's international body may consider funding this game, with the Lions' extra week in town costing around $30,000, and has already been asked by Tonga to hand over the $70,000 it cost them to play New Zealand at Carlaw Park a fortnight ago.
But Bell doe not expect help from the New Zealand Rugby League now, or at the World Cup next year, where they are seeded with Scotland, Ireland and Samoa.
"Frank [Endacott] won't be doing me any favours, and vice versa. They see us as the opposition and fair enough," Bell said.
"We see ourselves as the fourth-seeded side and that's not being big-headed and it's said with regard to the team Samoa will pull together from all around the world.
"We understand the Kiwis come first and Frank has first choice but we'll still give a good account of ourselves there - I'd go if we had third or fourth choice."
And there should be no problems next year over release of players: "It's written in blood."
Bell is rapt that the Maori have the chance of international competition so he can blood players ahead of the Cup.
"Most of these guys you haven't seen on TV," he said.
The loss of potential captain Tawera Nikau (he had knee arthroscopy last week) and St Helens wing Sean Hoppe to injury will not help, but Bell has eight players with NRL experience, including Warriors Boycie Nelson and Wai Koopu, last year's Warrior reserve-grade player of the year in prop Frank Watene, now at Wakefield in England, and his front row partner, Paul Rauhihi, from Newcastle, ex-Warrior Marty Moana from Halifax, Jared Mills, Luke Goodwin and Darren Rameka, formerly of Wests, and Robert Henare, from St George.
And there is a pairing from the Sydney Metropolitan Cup side the Kellyville Bush Rangers in Waikato stalwart Tukere Barlow and half and kicker Willie Rangi.
Great Britain are a better side than a lot of people rate them and Bell has no real expectations of a win, except that anything can happen on a football field and a Maori version of France is out there too.
Aotearoa Maori: Steve Matthews (Glenora), Alex Chan (Wentworthville, Sydney), Boycie Nelson (Glenora), Steve Berryman (Waikato), Jared Mills (Wests), Willie Rangi (Kellyville, Sydney), Paul Rauhihi (Newcastle), Tukere Barlow (Kellyville), John Edmonds (Northcote), Robert Henare (St Geroge), Darren Rameka (Wests), Andrew Wynyard (London Broncos), Gavin Bailey (Glenora), Martin Moana (Halifax), Frank Watene (Wakefield), Wairangi Koopu (Warriors).
By Peter Jessup