From Beirut to Sydney – The boys who did their nation proud

In their most important ever fixture, Lebanon were losing at half time. With the deficit only six points, they had 40 minutes to make history.

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Jack Douglas

In their most important ever fixture, Lebanon were losing at half time. With the deficit only six points, they had 40 minutes to make history.

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Lebanon fans at the World Cup ©Lebanon Rugby League (@LebanonRL)

In their most important ever fixture, The Lebanon rugby league team found themselves 22-16 down at half time. Tries from Adam Doueihi, Abbas Miski and James Elias saw the Lebanese claw themselves back into contention after trailing heavily for most of the half.

With the deficit only six points, Brad Fittler’s men had 40 minutes to make history. Minutes into the second period Doueihi thought he had scored his second, but a controversial Video Referee’s decision ruled the try out.

A Hingano penalty meant Tonga lead by eight and despite a converted Miski try late on, the Tongans held on to record a 24-22 victory, shattering the dreams of thousands of Lebanese fans.

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The heart-breaking moment Lebanon’s World Cup came to an end  ©Lebanon Rugby League (@LebanonRL)

After nearly sixteen years, the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990; leaving an estimated 120,000 – 150,000 dead with a further 200,000 wounded. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 resulted in one of the most infamous sieges in military history.

As Israeli forces bombarded Beirut from air, land and sea in an attempt to assassinate key Palestinian leaders, a multinational peacekeeping force was sent in to Beirut to help evacuate Palestinians.

The US, French, Italian and British contingent helped restore some normality and to ensure the withdrawal of all foreign forces and aid, whilst helping to train the Lebanese military to prevent future conflict.

With Israel to the south and Syria to the north and east, you could be forgiven for expecting conflict to be ever-present. Despite this, the nation of six million has been recently making the headlines in a surprisingly positive fashion.

Rugby League

Les Cèdres (The Cedars) deservedly qualified for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup after comprehensively beating South Africa 90-28 on aggregate over two legs in Pretoria.

Lebanon were then drawn alongside eventual winners and runners up Australia and England, as well as France, and were expected to finish bottom. The top three in the group qualified for the knockout stages.

Travis Robinson, who plays for Newtown Jets in the New South Wales Premiership, built on his tally of six tries in qualifying as he went over twice; helping his side secure a shock 29-18 victory over the French in Canberra.

Robinson had previously enjoyed time in the NRL with Melbourne Storm, and his and his teams’ heroics against France was enough to qualify for the knockout stages and more importantly, receive automatic qualification for the 2021 World Cup.

Lebanon’s other two group stage fixtures saw them lose 29-10 to England before eventual champions Australia recorded a 34-0 victory against Les Cèdres. Both results warranted overwhelming respect from the League world as punters expected the English and Australians to record much higher scores against the then eighteenth ranked side.

With progression confirmed, Lebanon were drawn to face Tonga in the quarterfinals. At 3pm local time, 4am back here, the fixture in Christchurch kicked off. Whilst the Lebanese side came up short on that occasion, their adventure in the world cup was certainly admirable.

The positive performances and results Lebanon recorded means the side came away from the world cup with their heads held high. Now up to ninth in the world rankings, The Cedars find themselves ten places above Russia; the side that inflicted Lebanon’s heaviest ever defeat (80-0) back in 2008.

Despite the 24 man world cup squad featuring only one home-grown-player, the people of Lebanon are still enthralled with the game. The player in question, Raymond Sabat, plays for Lycans RL in Beirut.

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The Lebanon national side team that beat Italy in the Mediterranean Cup in 2017 ©FIRL/SportCode

The outside back wants the country to bring through more home grown talent to help progress the game, and thoughts like these are reflected by journalist Danny Kazandjian (1) who adds: “It is essential for countries like Lebanon to ensure there is a clear, robust cultural link between the country and the national team.

“Lebanon fields national teams at under-21s, under-18s and under-16s – last year the U21s and U18s toured Serbia – so the pathways are there now.”

Up and coming sports in countries such as Lebanon and other historical underdogs have often struggled in influencing young players and ensuring their youngsters have a clear pathway to the first team. The fact that the Lebanese Rugby League Federation are heavily investing in their youth teams epitomizes the hope and enthusiasm the nation has for its rapidly growing sport.

The Lebanon Rugby League Championship added another side to its roster in 2016, with Lycans RLFC now making it 5 domestic teams within the league. Collegiate Rugby is making a big impact in Lebanon. There are 2 university divisions, the first featuring 4 sides and the second division hosting 6 teams. As the game grows in Lebanon, the competitions are doing so too.

The Australian influence in the team is evident, with the majority of the Lebanese players playing at some level within the Australian pyramid. In an interview for the BBC (2), Lebanon head coach and ex-Aussie superstar Brad Fittler says that his players are beyond proud to represent their nation.

He states: “The majority [of the players] have both Lebanese parents. And if anyone has kept their identity in Australia it is the Lebanese community. They live together, they eat together – they’ve kept their identity more than most other nationalities that have come to this country.”

Les Cèdres were triumphant over an Italian side in June 2017 as they ran out 6-4 winners in a remarkably tight match. Unlike their World Cup squads, the fixture was played between two national sides using all domestic players, which proved pivotal in the progression of the Lebanese players, as Lebanon successfully defended their Mediterranean Cup title. But this success was unparalleled to what would follow.

Lebanon’s success at the world cup was unexpected to say the least, and now with qualification confirmed for 2021, who knows what unprecedented success the little nation can go on to achieve. With the tournament being held here in England, Lebanon are sure to leave a lasting impression here within the UK.

The national anthem titled: All of Us: For the Country, surely embodies the spirit of the Rugby team; as this group of players go on to make their nation even prouder.

Jack Douglas

Sources:

1 & 2: BBC Sport: Rugby League World Cup 2017: How has the sport become so popular in Lebanon? – 2nd November 2017

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