Phil Pritchard: ‘We all let ourselves down’ after shameful New Zealand loss

Phil Pritchard is the most quiet, reserved man in rugby league, a player whose only outward emotion is a smile during training. When the Papua New Guinea forward was called into camp with the Kiwis squad this weekend, Pritchard was at an age where a smile rarely emerged and a hushed voice reserved a space in the monotone of the group.

Yet there was a rush to greet him in Suva as he prepared to fly out with a handful of teammates. Tears flooded his eyes and the 47-year-old took a moment to compose himself as teammates and officials rushed to hug him. After spending a week enduring one of the most acrimonious fixtures in international football history, he emerged to further see the unfurling world after COVID’s worst is coming.

“I’m hurting. It hurts not to be out there but if we had won this game I would still be hurting,” Pritchard said. “I am really disappointed with my teammates. I have no idea why they didn’t do it for us.”

In the end, a superior performance by Australia ensured COVID are not presented with the chance to put the Kiwis to the sword once more in a rematch on October 28th in Auckland. After one half of rugby league witnessed one of the most disgraceful displays in the sport’s history, the players turned on each other in search of the sole international honor that has eluded them for 24 years. As captains Shaun Johnson and Johnson came together in a final bout of tensions across the field, incongruous differences amongst the 15 were laid bare to all.

“We have been really unlucky not to win over the years but we have also been very fortunate to have so many top players,” said Johnson. “COD – there are so many big names in it but at the end of the day that’s why we’re here, to be professional and support your teammates and brothers. We lost that feeling, I guess that professionalism, that shared dressing room that just wasn’t there today.”

Up until last Thursday’s clash, Pritchard and Johnson were among the three most influential players in the Kiwis dressing room. Their quiet nature and leadership qualities were crucial to the Kiwis’ story in Australian football. Sitting face to face for the first time since last week’s dreadful scoreline, the two men were unable to avoid the anger etched on their faces.

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“It’s hard to look this in the eye,” Johnson said. “This wasn’t a win. We just don’t go out there and play as a team. There is no one person you can hold accountable for the result but there were a couple of individuals who didn’t want to play for the team.”

Four men in the Kiwis side were interviewed after last week’s first-half carnage. They all touched base in the dressing room before facing the media but only Johnson commented on the way his teammates responded to the horror of the New Zealand pack’s performance. His team-mates accused him of panic attacks that subsequently saw him bottled out of action for the second half.

“Most of the stuff said was obviously nonsense. To say I did anything wrong, I was gasping for breath. I do admit that I have a tolerance of pain but I’m not sure we would have been in a position to pick me up,” Johnson said. “Most of what went on behind closed doors, no one wanted to have a leadership role in there. This week is about us as a team and how we move forward. I feel confident we can.”

“A lot of what went on was rubbish. There were a lot of players under the pump today and that was disappointing,” Pritchard said. “We were disappointed at halftime. There were plenty of things we need to look at in the off-season. As players we have let ourselves down and I feel sorry for my boys. We are all humbled and disappointed at the way we played in that game. We really need to hold ourselves accountable.”

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