How the tiny island of Niue is aiming to become a force in world rugby league

Sport Examined takes a look at the Pacific Island’s hopeful rise to power.

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Jack Douglas

Sport Examined takes a look at the Pacific Island’s hopeful rise to power.

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Niue have announced their squad for the upcoming “Emerging Nations” later this year ©Alchetron

The Takalo is defined as a ‘traditional Niue war dance by an individual warrior or group of warriors prior to engaging the enemy in warfare’.

Throughout history, defenders of the tiny island put their nation and people first, as they often defended their land to the death. The Takalo war cry, similar to the iconic Māori Haka, was a way of striking fear into Niue’s enemies before the subsequent battles unfolded.

The Takalo is still dauntingly performed to this day, as Niue’s rugby league outfit look to emulate the warrior nature of their ancestors.

With a population of just 1,624, the Island nation find themselves somehow sitting 31st in the latest RLIF rankings. South Africa meanwhile, boasting 55 million citizens, are currently four places below the yellow and blue jerseys of Niue.

When inhabitants of Niue, painted in blood, refused to give permission for Captain Cook to land in 1774, he named the Island ‘Savage Island’, as a warning to other sailors to stay well clear of the Polynesian Rock.

This ‘savage’ spirit is epitomised to this day through the athletes that represent the island, especially in Rugby League.

The islanders played their first international in 1986, losing 22-8 to an experienced Cook Islands side in Rarotonga. It took six years and eight tests for Niue to record their first win, beating high-flyers Fiji 14-0.

For a tiny nation, Niue’s recent form has been nothing less than spectacular. Brendan Perenara’s men have won five out of their last seven fixtures, twice beating South Africa by a 44 point deficit.

Backrow Josiah Tamasi encapsulates the Niuean fighting spirit, stating: “When I put on the Niue jersey I carry my family out there with me and playing alongside my brothers in the team means a lot to me.”

The idea of togetherness is one most nations would envy, and it seems the Niuean’s treat each match like a battle as Tamasi adds: “There’s nothing like going to war and doing all you can to come out on top.”

The words of the Wentworthville Magpies man echo across the entire squad.

“To sing our anthem, perform our Takalo [below] and represent all of my family has been a dream come true. We are a small nation but with huge hearts, and one day we will reach the world cup,” adds centre Aziah Ikitule who plays his club rugby for Auckland outfit Howick Hornets.

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Although remote, Niue has a reputation of an island with beautiful hideaways ©Lonely Planet

Fullback and captain Zebastian Lucky Luisi is perhaps the nation’s most accomplished players; having enjoyed seven years in England. After a successful trial with London Harlequins, Luisi signed for the club and managed to rack up fifty appearances for the Quins before moving to Doncaster and then on to Barrow Raiders.

With no domestic competition being played on the island, coach Perenara has to look west across the Pacific to monitor his players plying their trade in Australia or New Zealand. Few of the squad have made it into the NRL, with most of the players representing teams in lower or provincial divisions.

Due west over the Coral Sea, the world’s top ranked side welcome visitors to Sydney’s magnificent ANZ stadium, spurred on by a capacity crowd of 84,000 raucous Aussie fantics. Niue meanwhile, whose whole population could fit in to the ANZ 51 times and still have space for away fans, don’t have the luxury of such a world class venue.

The Niue High School Oval, more commonly known as the Alofi stadium, holds a remarkable stat of being one of the only high school ‘stadiums’ to host interntional sporting events. With a capacity of under a thousand, the proud Niueans cram into the Oval to support their warriors.

Competitions like the Emerging Nations World Championship this October will give the side the chance to play competitive fixtures against sides of similar ability which will give Niue priceless experience and belief.

The Islanders have been handed a tough draw as they find themselves drawn against two higher ranked sides in Malta and the Philippines, yet if they were to make it out of Pool A then the trophy could certainly be reachable for Perenara’s men.

Spurred on by recent successes in test matches, Niueans believe qualifying for the world cup in England in 2021 is possible; and if their last result is anything to go by this hope could well turn into a reality.

The Niue team, most of whom are based in Australia or New Zealand, were admirably beaten 32-16 to world cup quarter finalists Lebanon last time out, perhaps a sign of a golden era of Niuean Rugby to come.

With the World Cup format expanding, two more places are up for grabs meaning sixteen sides will contest the Paul Barrière Trophy. Could the yellow and blue jerseys of Niue make an appearance in England soon? Let’s hope so.

Jack Douglas

Sources: Interviews via Niue Rugby League on Facebook.

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Is rugby league in Britain caught in one long Groundhog Day?

Clubs change their teams in desperate bids to stay up so they can go through the same circus-like cycle again for another year, whilst the sport’s administrators are at each other’s throats. 

Steve Mascord

Clubs change their teams in desperate bids to stay up so they can go through the same circus-like cycle again for another year, whilst the sport’s administrators are at each other’s throats. 

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Will Ralph Rimmer, new RFL CEO bring changes? ©BBC

 

Transfer deadline days like last week’s used to be a bit of fun for fans; instead, they now lay bare the financial failings of our clubs.

A couple of days after Salford – via a director – asked for fans to help them sign players for the Qualifiers, Leigh sold a bunch of stars and their owner announced he intended to depart next year.

All of this comes against the backdrop of a supposed battle for power between Super League clubs and everyone else, and as the ceremonial role as RFL president is handed over to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.

Sometimes the sport seems to be running on bald tires, ready to skid off the road and into a ditch.

Surely we have to eventually learn from clubs repeatedly getting themselves into financial bother by either trying to gain promotion or stay up that we’re stuck in a destructive Groundhog Day loop.

But there’s a deeper problem, isn’t there? There just doesn’t seem to be enough money to go around in rugby league. When we get to the back end of the year, the haves simply buy players from the have-nots and leave them the have-even-lesses.

When clubs have no reserve grade and profess to be worried about being able to muster 17 players, we have bigger issues than what play-off system works best and whether to keep the Super 8s.

Perhaps things need to get even worse before they can get better.

Currently we have teams representing mainly small towns and villages – there are exceptions – fighting over the scraps thrown to them by a TV company in return for selling subscriptions and advertising to those same small towns and villages. The less interested the next generation is in the game, the more money saved by the TV companies who’ll no longer have to fork out for the rights.

The financial way out for the Super League clubs, in particular, would seem to have been giving the likes of Catalans, Toronto and Toulouse a share of the domestic TV money and putting any overseas rights into a central pot as well.

That’s what happens in Australasia – the New Zealand Warriors are the most valuable team in terms of rights income from the Shaky Isles but they get no more from the Sky TV deal than any other club. It’s divvy’d up evenly.

But in the case of Toronto, anyway, it seems the Super League clubs won’t share the existing TV income which means their financial escape hatch is blocked – the Wolfpack will get the lions (or Wolf’s) share of any future North American contract.

Short-termism at its worst.

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Toronto Wolfpack are developing their own TV deals ©Toronto Wolfpack

If you looked at British rugby league from the outside, taking into account its regional peculiarities and national invisibility, what are its strengths?

In no particular order: Wigan, Leeds, St Helens, Warrington, Hull, rugby league being very popular and profitable in Australia, Wembley, Old Trafford and people in most of the world not knowing the difference between league and union.

Put another way, just as a cash-strapped club will sell of its players, cash-strapped rugby league still has IP of some value it can sell off – or at least leverage – to survive.

Wigan and Hull playing a Super League game in Wollongong this year is a nod in the direction of how British rugby league can buzz around the Australian honeypot and come away with a full tummy. Sydney.com is on the back of Wigan’s shirts all season, right?

Super League is on Australian TV and includes athletes the audiences there know. Why not set up a full-time office in Sydney and chase commercial deals? One or two such deals, or a free-to-air TV contract, would pay the salary of a NSW-domiciled staffer. Fish where the fish are; rugby league big fish are in Oz.

If the NRL won’t let Perth or Wellington or Ipswich or Port Moresby in, then why not invite them to join Super League?

Rugby league will probably never get into the centre of towns like Manchester and Liverpool with professional teams – it’s been trying and failing for too long and people in those cities think they know what rugby league is … and they aren’t interested.

This is where ignorance is the game’s friend in Toronto, New York, Belgrade and elsewhere they’ve never heard the term “northern sport”. Most fans at the Denver Test thought they were watching the All Blacks. If you’re a potential team owner, getting involved in rugby union at an elite level is far more expensive; the entry level in league is bargain basement by comparison.

Another advantage to exploit.

If the TV money goes down at the end of the current Sky deal, the sport might be bombed back to the part-time era. It’s time to identify the teams who can survive that apocalypse and combine them with others who can thrive outside in the radioactive no-British-TV-cash post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Everything must change; we just can’t keep going like this.

Steve Mascord

 

Rugby league’s culture war explained

Was the NRL proposal for international rugby league a sign they are finally taking this seriously – or an attempt to hijack the debate? Steve Mascord examines the battle lines in the fight over the sport’s future.

Steve Mascord

Was the NRL proposal for international rugby league a sign they are finally taking this seriously – or an attempt to hijack the debate? Steve Mascord examines the battle lines in the fight over the sport’s future.

 

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Elstone is looking to make an impact in rugby league ©SkySports

AFTER hearing a recent hour-long interview with the new Super League chief executive, Robert Elstone, I think it’s possible to discern a new cultural schism in the sport of rugby league.

On one side of this chasm are the Super League and NRL clubs, spoiling for a fight to maintain the status quo – and if there must be change, to lead it in the direction of their choosing.

On the other is everyone else, streaming their games on Facebook, holding Test matches in America, Nines tournaments in Holland and posting blogs and videos and podcasts. Oh, and Leeds.

Of course, one hole in this convenient scenario is that the chat in question was actually on an independent podcast – Jon Wilkin and Mark Flanagan’s Whippets and Flatcaps.

But that platform – it’s name, anyway – does fit with one of the apparent pillars of Elstone’s vision: the re-emergence of England’s north, the northern powerhouse. Like the 2021 World Cup, Elstone’s Super League is proud of the sport’s geographical roots.

The cultural cringe is gone; Eddie Waring might end up in a new logo.

By comparison, Elstone said Toronto made him nervous, there might be a case for fewer teams in Super League, he favoured getting rid of squad numbers and the free play after a turnover and said there were too many “splintered” international teams which made that arena in league look “fake”.

He is an unabashed admirer of State of Origin, which some Australian columnists are so fearful is going to become irrelevant in the face of international rugby league’s rise that they want Sam Burgess playing for NSW. Even arch traditionalist Phil Gould is favouring a shorter season and longer window for internationals.

Elstone likes Australian ideas like video referees at every ground and two referees.

 

The paradigm he reveres so much is, as we all know, extremely inward looking. Little appetite for expansion, trying to stop players leaving Australasia to represent their countries, a giant in-house media unit, limited interaction with the outside world and a focus on competition between two states.

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State of Origin is still the pinnacle of rugby league in Australia ©Stuff

The Aussies are holding their own American event next year, “round zero” in California, with no involvement with the promoter who will take the World Cup to North America six years later.

But it makes sense that someone who has left rugby league for soccer would come back nostalgic for his childhood sport’s past and would disavow some of our game’s dreamier ambitions.

Having seen the geographic spread and financial might of the round-ball game, one wouldn’t get too excited about Toronto or an Irish team full of people who live by the M62. That makes sense.

But the Super League clubs wouldn’t appoint someone who disagreed with them.

If Elstone wants the British game more like the Australian scene then so do those who gave him a job. Challenge Cup back to May and a return for Great Britain also got a mention at the media conference where he was unveiled.

Wigan owner Ian Lenagan even said he accepted the preservation of promotional and relegation only as “a trade-off” – his words not mine.

Perhaps the aversion to the Super Eights has something to do with it being an RFL property (with them getting the money first) rather than an altruistic objection to the concept.

But pinning everything on the absolute conviction that a return to rugby league’s past will preserve its future will make many as “nervous” as the current experiments. 

It seems like an overly simplistic question and a flat end to this column but … what if it doesn’t work?

Steve Mascord

Italy women’s rugby league side: It all starts from the grassroots

Thanks to the growth of the women’s game and the exposure gained by the Italian rugby league authorities at the 2017 World Cup, a bright future lies ahead of the Azzurre, the Italy Women’s National Team.

Matteo Portoghese

Thanks to the growth of the women’s game and the exposure gained by the Italian rugby league authorities at the 2017 World Cup, a bright future lies ahead of the Azzurre, the Italy Women’s National Team.

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“It all starts from grassroots, mate” Craig Salvadori told me, Queensland based former rugby league professional player and coach. A City Origin and New South Wales representative, he played twice for Australia but stayed in touch with his family’s Italian roots.
Italy National Team head coach in 1999, he has never lost sight of the Italian-Australian connection and in 2017 visited the Azzurri in Cairns, in the days of their fixture against Ireland in Barlow Park, Cairns (North Queensland).
It was a hot day and world-class superstars such as Mark Minichiello, James Tedesco, Paul Vaughan, Daniel Alvaro and Nathan Brown were having their Captain’s run before taking on the Wolfhounds in a match played under high humidity conditions.
Grassroots is a word I heard many times during my Australian journey with Cameron Ciraldo’s team as Social Media Officer.
Cairns, Townsville and Canberra all meant meeting the grassroots game: working hard under the North Queensland sun, meeting Northern Pride supporters/RLWC volunteers, covering a joint training session with Wales at the Townsville & Districts Blackhawks Rugby League Football Club, chatting with Raiders and West Belconnen’s fans in Canberra. In QLD and NSW, rugby league is everything: it is footy and grassroots and professional game work and grow together[1].

When asked to write about the Azzurre, Salvadori’s words came to my mind. Orazio D’Arro, Federazione Italiana Rugby League (FIRL) president, was telling him about our efforts to grow rugby league back home, about local rugby union players who switch codes during the summer[2] to enjoy the greatest game of all. And Craig insisted with this grassroots mantra.

It was impossible, due to bureaucratic and timing reasons, to send an Italian team to the 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup but it has become one of FIRL’s main aims, due to the lessons learned Down Under and the restless dedication[3] shown by the girls in their first Test Matches (Beirut 2017, Toulon 2018).  It is difficult to organize, due to geography of the country and the players’ busy personal and sporting schedule, a September to May Italian Club Championship but Tiziano Franchini (the womens’ head coach), Tino Magrì and their colleagues are doing their best to make the girls actually love the game. Have them used to the rules and gameplay of rugby league.

This is what I call grassroots and this is, somehow, what Josh Mantellato, Terry Campese and company all played for at the World Cup[4].

Now, the aftermath of the RLWC breathed new life into the Italian officials and they kept on with stages and camps from North to South of the country. The Italy women’s national team has given[5] a lot of players a chance to shine at International level, while discovering a new sport. In most cases, they are non-professional rugby union players and manage to combine their effort in both codes[6], but several experienced, with rugby league, their first ever contact with the rugby ball.

In addition to this, we all know sports authorities in England and Australia are helping the women’s game with huge investments. World Cup videos and highlights prove rugby league can be spectacular and FIRL is working hard to provide a pathway to this level.

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Some might say there is still a long way to go and the recent tour to France confirmed it is still difficult to beat opponents who play RL all year long, but “with a little more experience we could have won the game,” says Franchini[7], who has represented Italy in test football. “Losing is never fun but I am happy with how the girls played in Toulon. They put a lot of effort into the game, they are hardworking and very dedicated players. The future looks good. We have to keep working and need a long-term vision.”

This long-term vision cannot be separated from the grassroots, as new stages and special trainings are being scheduled. Anybody interested on women’s rugby league in the North of Italy cannot miss the stage being held in Stanghelle (Padua, Veneto) 9th and 10th June 2018, under the guidance of Rugby League European Federation Certified coaches. Furthermore, club fixtures in the summer should provide continuity to the projects that had been set up.

What every rugby league director, coach and referee had better remember is the link between the development of the sport and top-level. Who knows, following the example by homegrown International players Gioele Celerino (former Newcastle Thunder and Tully Tigers, now at Queanbeyan Blues, Canberra[8]), Edoardo Pezzano, Simone Boscolo and Giovanni Ruscica (Tully, Queensland), some girls may move to Australia, England or France to improve their game and help raising the national team once back home.

The pathway to the Women’s World Cup is there and, as Salvadori said in a hot training day in North Queensland, it all starts from the grassroots.

Matteo Portoghese

[1]           “’Una famiglia’: the diverse roots of Italy’s Rugby League World Cup squad”, The Guardian, October 27, 2017, http://bit.ly/2sd0tTt.

[2]           “The Rugby League World Cup is just part of the Italian rugby league story”, Cultural Pulse, October 31, 2017, http://bit.ly/2saS7fe.

[3]           “Une double confrontation France vs Italie à Toulon”, Treize Mondial, January 26, 2018, http://bit.ly/2xcazd3.

[4]           “Campese Hoping To Recruit World Cup Teammate”, Canberra Region Rugby League,

[5]           “The Italian women’s national rugby league team is looking to blaze a new trail for women’s sport”, Cultural Pulse, October 31, 2017, http://bit.ly/2xbTyQx.

[6]           “Babini e Capello in azzurro”, Il Friuli, February 22, 2018, http://bit.ly/2xct9lq.

[7]           “Rugby League – Francia-Italia e un augurio per il futuro”, MondoSportivo, March 31, 2018, http://bit.ly/2xiiLZE.

[8]           “Austbrokers Canberra CRC Round 1 Preview”, Raiders.com, April 5, 2018, http://bit.ly/2siivnJ.

Slingshot or not: Do the posts need updating in rugby league or union?

Fifty years ago, the NFL changed its uprights to the slingshot shaped ones we know today. Are the rugby codes in need of an update?

Spencer Kassimir

Fifty years ago, the NFL changed its uprights to the slingshot shaped ones we know today. Are the rugby codes in need of an update?

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©orderinchaos

We all know that a ball grounded against the posts is a try in union and no try in league and usually don’t care why. According to my colleague, Dr. Kevin Ball Ph.D. of Victoria University, a less frequently known fact is that grounds utilised by both rugby union and rugby league teams that don’t change the uprights are out of spec with one of the codes. This is because the width for union is 5.6 but only 5.5 for league. This may not sound like much but it is essentially enough for a union player to have successfully made an attempt at goal instead of bouncing off the posts.

But otherwise, why would we want to change our beloved H shaped goalposts?

For those followers of either codes but not the gridiron, it has been 50 years since the NFL switched to the “slingshot” model. Two Americans, retired sports writer/editor Joel Rottman came up with it while staring at his fork along with colleague coach Jim Trimble while having lunch in Canada. Why? Because it would make the game safer and would prevent players from gaining advantage by using the posts to set a pick.

From 1966 onward, the Canadian Football League has used the new shape and from 1967, the NFL has as well. After all, the two were having that fateful lunch in Montreal so why wouldn’t the CFL get it onto the field first?

But, more importantly, the history of how these came to be requires some explaining. Unlike in most countries where professional sport dwarfs that of all others, college football still reigns supreme in America. This was even more so the case in 1920, when the NFL was founded. It used the classic H shaped goalposts and placed them on the goal-line just like in both rugby codes. This is because that was what college football did and college football did it because the origins of the sport are in pre-split rugby. Still this was a long time after the most influential event that split the North American games from their English counterpart. In 1879/1880 the scrimmage/scrummage ceased to be contested and, as a result of ball hogging and boring games, a three down restriction was brought in two years later.

But still, it was not long after that in 1927, the NFL followed suit with college football and retreated the goalposts to the back of the end zone as a way of reducing kicking attempts. This was not to last and in 1933, the NFL decided to make its own rules and moved the posts back up to encourage more kicking due to ties.

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©Unclekevy

But the next step was not entirely linear to the “gooseneck” shape we have today. Until 1967 as exemplified in the AFL-NFL Championship Game (in hindsight referred to as Super Bowl I), the design was changed to that the bottom half of the H was recessed but the top crossbar and top half protruded forward to sit over the goal line.

For those that say the Y shaped NFL style is just too much, maybe this is something rugby folk should be looking at.

No they are not the prettiest but they are 1) safer in reducing collisions at the line 2) prevent players from using them to their advantage and 3) do so without changing the distance needed to be kicked.

However, if the goal is to reduce the amount of goals kicked, we could simply move the current H or even the broken H shaped design to the deadball line.

It is hard to find someone that follows rugby union to say that a game of aerial ping pong that is then won entirely off of penalty goals is more exciting than hard fought tries scored. The National Rugby Championship (NRC) has attempted to change the strategy of coaches in Australia by assigning different values to the goal after try (usually two but now three) and penalty kick (usually three but now two). Whether or not this grows beyond the comp has yet to be determined but it may just go the way of that white card experiment.

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Old NFL goalposts @Packervilleblog

In rugby league, this means that there would be at least eight more metres to kick when trying to break that tie to win in the final seconds of the game. Some find the status quo exhilarating but others would argue that it is 80 hard fought minutes reduced down to who is arbitrarily lucky enough to have the ball in their hands as the buzzer sounds. With a ten-metre retreat, and just two markers off the ruck, it is understandably frustrating since, unlike union, this provides a major advantage to the kicking side.

But what about the Y shaped goal? If we are so keen to keep the goal over the goal line, would it serve a purpose? It provides only one post to come in contact with or to use for advantage and, by design, it is recessed into the in-goal area, which would allow defenders to line up in front of it. Since we are this far down the rabbit hole, there is always the option of suspending the uprights as they do in the Arena Football League (also AFL) though, even with tethers strapping them to the ground, it is likely they will sway in the wind!

It is unlikely that any of the above ideas will ever be put into practice unless a game is being played on a field designed for American football but it is important to note that, though its intended design and use in the CFL is still being felt today as they still sit on the goal line, Rottman and Trimble’s slingshot only maintained its purpose for eight years in the NFL. For all the eight seasons from Super Bowl II through to Super Bowl IX, the wishbone sat up front like it’s Canadian cousin. After that season, the NFL decided there was too much kicking and decided to move them back behind the dead ball line. The idea reducing the number of posts in half for safety while maintaining a goal line stance were no longer needed. As such, if we in the rugby codes are serious about reevaluating the goalposts it is crucial that we establish what we would like to achieve in any sort of changes and, as such should keep this final piece of the puzzle in mind as it has remained unchanged for more than half a century on the gridiron.

Spencer Kassimir

Denver in the John?

With the NRL and RLIF locked in a war of words over the Denver Test, is it time for a change of approach in dealings with the insular southern hemisphere citadels?

Steve Mascord

With the NRL and RLIF locked in a war of words over the Denver Test, is it time for a change of approach in dealings with the insular southern hemisphere citadels?

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The scheduled Test between England and New Zealand is creating a stir in the sport ©Loverugbyleague/Gettyimages

A letter from the NRL, its clubs and the Rugby League Players Association saying they do not support the Great Britain-New Zealand Test in Denver next month was hardly a bombshell.

In other news, Donald Trump is not a member of Greenpeace and dogs don’t particularly like cats.

One could go into the sheer childishness of the letter, including the contention that although the clubs earlier claimed the match at the Sports Authority Field was a money grab, the RFL’s insistence that it’s not – which the clubs seemingly accept – proves they are right about the game being a bad idea anyway. They seem stunned there is an actual attempt to breach the American market without them – and ignorant of the fact the promoter has already been given the 2025 World Cup!

We could also comment on the arrogance of the NRL franchises for claiming some sort of veto over where the game is played, as if an international involving two foreign countries has anything to do with them.

But I realised some time ago that arguing about Denver is a sure recipe for a headache. I’m kind of over it. The only thing of substance in the letter was that the NRL would not punish any club which refused to release players this year and would not release anyone for the same fixture next year or the year after.

Which means we’ll be having the same headache-inducing debate for another 12 months.

Some solace can be taken from the fact the NRL, its clubs and Players Association seemed to take two months to draft a simple letter while England players jumped on the front foot immediately.

The fact that a similar mass declaration was not forthcoming from New Zealand stars suggests they have more to fear in the face of Australasian resistance to the game; the New Zealand Warriors vow to stand down those involved the following week could be interpreted as either admirable player welfare or a little intimidatory. The Kiwis bottomed out in so many ways last year and this sort of distraction is not going to encourage players and fans to rally around a rebuild.

If Tonga replace them in the Rugby League Challenge next year … wow, I’d love to see the clubs try to stop Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo getting on a plane. These are the sort of tactics the promoters can now entertain, thanks to the helpful forewarning of their enemies in Australia.

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The Sports Authority Field, Denver ©Tripadvisor

The England and New Zealand (or Tongan) players have 13 months to gird their loins for another administrative battle; the RFL and NZRL are smaller organisations who can act more quickly than the war-torn domestic Australian bureaucracy.

But how far should they go?

To me it seems a clear case of discrimination on grounds of nationality that Papuans, Fijians, Tongans and Samoans are being released to represent their countries on a weekend when Englishmen and New Zealanders are expressly forbidden. Surely it is challengeable in court.

The NRL’s response, then, would be to simply cancel the Pacific Tests.

And this is where we default in rugby league. While around the edges, we are quick to rebellion and discord, at the centre we still try to do things by consensus. We think of ourselves as strategic. Why fight so hard for one game, at the expense of two more?

But I can’t help but think that we are entering a period so important in the history of the game that we might be better off ripping and tearing and damning the consequences.

Withhold prize money from Australia in response to their governing body refusing to enforce RLIF rules regarding player releases. If last year’s World Cup monies have not been passed on, withhold the next one.

Take that legal action against clubs over apparent discrimination. Pick two full strength teams and make a big deal of players being pressured to drop out, one by one, by their clubs.

Play the game anyway, if necessary with no NRL players (we’re talking 2019 here). Cancel the British Lions Tour if the Aussies use that as a big stick.

Of course the problem is that the RLIF has an Australian chairman but allegedly the changes made in the last 12 months are there to increase independence. Let’s see some.

I’d like to see a leader who doesn’t care if he is sacked, who just makes an example of those holding the game back, refuses to sign non-disclosure agreements and goes down in a blaze of glory.

Bugger consensus. If someone comes out and highlights all that is wrong, his or her legacy will be that we know what must be done to make it right.

Steve Mascord

Analysing the proverbial elephant known as sport: Assimilating information from a series of inherently limited perspectives

How does our role and the way in which we view sports affect how we perceive (both) the process and outcome?

Spencer Kassimir

How does our role and the way in which we view sports affect how we perceive (both) the process and outcome?

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©NRL www.nrl.com/news/2018/02/13/voss-the-key-areas-the-referees-must-fix-in-2018

This is not the proverbial “elephant in the room” though one could argue that it’s always been one. The elephant referred to is the one being described in the story of the blind men and how it relates to perception and enforcement of laws with inherently limited information based on the position where one is placed. One blind man says the animal is like huge fans. The next like a wall. Another like a massive spike. The fourth, like a tree trunk. And finally, like a rope. The moral is that when a person does not have the ability to grasp all of the aspects of existence and/or is limited by a sense, our description is restricted by the limited amount of knowledge we are able to register and then recount.

Refereeing is very much like this and, in today’s televised game, rule/law changes are dominantly focused on the end product of a game being as entertaining to a spectator as possible. Rarely, if ever, is the ability to referee and enforce the new regulation given equal thought. When it is, it usually is given much less weight to tip the scales in making a final decision. After all, the prime focus of professional and amateur sport is about providing spectators the best experience and, subsequently, amateur players the best training to make it to a professional level of competition.

Starting in 1951, there have been a series of back and forth law changes on the distance, if any, the defensive line had to retreat to be on sides. Originally it was no yards, then five yards, then none again, three and then, in 1966, five again. Mind you, this was the last change under yardage and was entirely conducted by the New South Wales Rugby League before 1967’s introduction of limited tackles (4) in 1967. Think about how these distances, compared to today’s ten-metre retreat change the perception and ability to enforce the laws.

Back then, the defensive line originally lined up with no retreat then only had to retreat 5 yards in the past before the current standard of ten metres. The switch to the current standard of ten-metres is more than unnoticeable. Though the 10m retreat was created to open up the game and encourage more passing even though, in practice, it encouraged more first received hit-ups for quick yards. Yet, one has to wonder what impact this has to referees. The ability of a referee to hold a defensive line at five metres compared to ten while still being able to focus on the ruck and the attacking line is more than unnoticeable. 1. It is clear how much more difficult it is to see the action in the ruck from 10 metres back than five. 2. The increase of distance and shift of angle causing a change in perception, in this case, parallax, is also complicated by the fact that the referee must now cover more area to keep an eye on both the defensive line and the attack is also covers more area and does so at a greater distance. For those not familiar with the concept of parallax, it is defined as, “the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions…” In practical sport terms, what baseball umpires defined as the “strike zone” changed across the board when they stopped holding a massive padded barrier in front of them for protection because they no longer had to look over and around the cushion.” This same logical applies to where the referee must stand from in rugby league as well as all sports and aspects of life.

Having been born and raised in the US, the elephant analogy was taught to me from the perspective of football a.k.a. American gridiron (as opposed to our three-down cousins to the north in Canada).   The platoon style of play that originated and proliferated around World War 2 amplified this since it eliminated athletes from playing offense, defense, and special teams. What the offensive lineman, quarterback, halfback, fullback, wide-receiver, and tight-end see are all different and they are only playing attack. Compared with the defensive lineman, line-backer, cornerback, as well as safety, let alone the kicker and punter brings even more to the number of ways our “blind men” are able to describe the elephant. But this is only the player’s perspective.

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American football has multiple referees in action

The American gridiron has evolved to be so complex that it requires seven on-field officials and even these lines can become blurred with 14 eyeballs on the field from the referee, umpire, head linesman/down judge, line judge, field judge, side judge, and back judge. Each of these individuals is charged with overseeing, interpreting, and enforcing different aspects of the game and still, many penalties and calls are missed. Still, this does not include the “calls to New York” where the footage is viewed on screen after the fact. There is on old saying that there is holding on every play so, as an offensive lineman, it is not about not holding but rather, not getting caught. Even still outside of the black and white rules of the game, there is then a whole arena of grey zones. For example, when does a receiver become a runner and how do we know? This was the prevailing issue last season for the Philadelphia Eagles even before the Super Bowl; one has to wonder why each led to different results. However, grey-zones aside, when a new law or interpretation is enacted, assuming it is clear and requires no assumption of a player’s intent, how many match officials does it take to make sure it is enforced?

The answer is different for each sport and even changes between different divisions and countries at the same level of competition simply based on national borders. Such is the case in rugby league where Super League and lower divisions in Australia have only one referee with two touch judges whereas top level have two of the former. Having accepted that even with seven officials that still do miss calls in American gridiron, what is the impact of the extra referee in Australian rugby league? Are more calls being made correctly by having the extra pair of eyes or is it like being an extra touch judge that, at many times, unbeknownst to the crowd, has seen an infringement but, based on the limited powers and visibility to the referee(s) from the sideline, frequently go unnoticed? Are we achieving the goal with two referees in light of the greater difficulty to take in, decipher, and act on the even greater amount of information that a referee takes in since we dropped back to ten metres? In bringing this back to the point, is the elephant known as rugby league being described in a greater level of completeness from an officiating perspective and, if so, is it being put into practice? Like the American gridiron, the above does not include reviews from the additional official charged with reviews on screen a.k.a. the bunker.

Having been exposed to Australian rules, rugby league, and rugby union at 16 years of age, thankfully due to channel surfing at 11pm on a Thursday, it is fascinating that these oval ball football codes have such starkly different interpretations even with respect to terms that most would believe are completely not open to interpretation. What is considered a catch in American football when going out of bounds is different whether one is playing high school/college or NFL and all of these differ with the interpretation of the AFL (Australian Football League). Simply put, the tail of the elephant has been described but is it a rope, a whip, or snake? Even if we are to assume that it is a rope, for what purpose does it have? Pulling, tying, lassoing?

The great Soviet Expressive Realist film director Sergei Eisenstein once said, “you should not pursue analogies and similarities too far – they lose their conviction and charm and begin to sound garbled or contrived.” Fearing I have overstepped this boundary, the analogy still holds water and, as those examining sport, it is crucial to ask ourselves the question, what part of the elephant of our chosen sport have we been focusing on and how can we look to the other parts of this massive beast.

Spencer Kassimir

Rugby league has it wrong according to an ex- Super League referee. Will football get it right?

“It’s served its time now, it needs looking at.” SportExamined catches up ex-Super League referee to discuss the place of video referees in sport.

Jack Douglas 

“It’s served its time now, it needs looking at.” SportExamined catches up ex-Super League referee to discuss the place of video referees in sport.

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Silverwood has extensive knowledge of video assistance ©barrau.gerard

Three Grand Finals, three Challenge Cup finals, three World Club Challenges and a World Cup final. These games are what most young rugby league players aspire to play in. But these honours make up the CV of one of the game’s most decorated referees.

And with these achievements in mind, it would be fair to say ex-Super League referee Richard Silverwood knows everything from his Salford Red Devils to surrendering in tackles.

Without doubt, the biggest talking point in sport right now is video assistance, particularly in football. Since the 1996 Super League World Nines, a video referee has been seen ever since within any TV broadcasted rugby league fixture. So for a sport where video officials run right through the modern identity of it, is the Super League using it correctly?

SportExamined caught up with Silverwood to discuss the matter.

“I think rugby league is getting a lot of grief for video refereeing at the minute because I don’t think they’ve got it right. When it was brought in I thought it was really good and helpful but I think it’s served its time now, it needs looking at.” Proposes Silverwood.

The 2006 Referee of the Year goes on to add: “You need to take it off the TV games or put it on every game because it’s inconsistent with some of the things that’s happening. Only the TV games and Catalan Dragons have the video referee so some weeks there’s two games or three games, if Catalan are at home, out of the six that have video refs which obviously gives an unfair advantage for certain teams because how many tries or wrong decisions are given or aren’t given on the other three, that’s not fair on the other teams.”

Only a third or sometimes half of the fixtures within the Super League weekly program feature a video official. Mistakes made in TV games are corrected; yet the games where no replays are available suffer from potential officiating errors leaving the game with a sense of unpredictability and unfairness.

The introduction of VAR into English football has been eventful to say the least, epitomised by the decision to book Chelsea winger Willian which came under fire from the football community. Video official Mike Jones did not see a ‘clear and obvious error’ in Graham Scott’s decision to book the Brazilian after being brought to ground against Norwich in the FA cup.

Blues boss Antonio Conte (1) went on to say: “If we want to use a new system, I can’t accept a big mistake. In this case, the Willian penalty was a big, big mistake. Not from the referee on the pitch, but from the person watching the game. If you’re watching the game and don’t see this situation … I hope the VAR wasn’t a referee because if you see that watching on television and don’t think that’s a penalty … He has to improve and must improve.”

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(VAR failing on it’s big audition – ©Andy Hooper/ Daily Mail)

Apart from this however, Silverwood fears that rugby league’s use of video assistance will mirror football’s future adaptation.

“If football was to have it, every single team should have video referees and not just the big clubs in the race for the top 4 or in the Champions League. For the system to be successful and fair across the game every single club needs to have it but let’s be honest, is there going to be a video ref at Crawley Town on a Tuesday night?”

Sky Sports were quick to broadcast that the Premier League Clubs had voted against using VAR earlier this month; and for the football purists this came as a sigh of relief. The problem with the potential system is that only Premier League clubs, where the riches of the post 1992 era dominate, would in all likelihood see VAR present in all their fixtures. But surely results matter just as much for Macclesfield Town fans as much as their Manchester City counterparts.

“It’s not just tries, it’s people getting sent off on a TV game that probably wouldn’t get sent off on a normal fixture in Rugby.” Silverwood adds. “Imagine this in football. A League 2 club play a third round cup fixture at home, there’s no video assistance. They go on to win but have their star player wrongly dismissed for two yellows, they can’t appeal.

“Their opponents in the next round, a premier league team let’s say, just won and kept all their players on the field thanks to VAR intervention because their game was televised. So the clubs then go in to the next round at even more of a disadvantage, because video referees won’t be at every match, so that won’t be fair.”

Silverwood, with his plethora of Super League and international refereeing experience is certain rugby needs a mix up with how they use the technology, and football needs to follow suit. A 2010 fixture tarnished his reputation in the eyes of many Leeds Rhinos fans: “Leeds Rhinos v Melbourne Storm in the World Club Challenge.”

With Leeds players surrendering in the tackles, the crowd were on Silverwood’s back. “I don’t think the crowd and even some of the Leeds players understood the rule.”

“I remember Keith Senior dived straight to the floor and I called surrender. He then gets up shouting abuse at me. I penalised him and Melbourne kicked the goal. He then told the press how arrogant I was.”

Some decisions only the referee can see. This was evident in the game at Stamford Bridge, Alvaro Morata received his marching orders for dissent. Similar to Silverwood’s World Club Challenge, the crowd were potentially unaware of what went on, but video assistance can’t help the crowd in this process.

Despite the mishaps and failings of VAR in English football so far, FIFA have announced that video assistance will be used in Russia for this summer’s World Cup. The commercial use of the technology is seemingly what appears to be driving the introduction of VAR further, but is this what the game needs?

Liverpool’s victory over Manchester City drew further debate into the matter as Leroy Sane had an effort incorrectly ruled out which would have seen City only a goal behind on aggregate. What the future holds for video assistance within both football and rugby league remains to be seen, but Silverwood leaves by saying: “Like I said, I don’t think rugby has it right, let’s hope football can be different.”

Jack Douglas

Sources:

1: ESPN (18th January 2018) Antonio Conte questions VAR: ‘The Willian penalty was a big, big mistake’ – retrieved from: http://www.espn.co.uk/football/chelsea/story/3352258/antonio-conte-questions-var-after-chelsea-win-the-willian-penalty-was-a-bigbig-mistake

 

Will rugby league snatch defeat from the jaws of victory …. again?

Historian Tony Collins argues rugby league is better placed than most sports to capitalise on the digital revolution – but will it’s cultural and commercial flaws collude to hold it back?

Steve Mascord

Historian Tony Collins argues rugby league is better placed than most sports to capitalise on the digital revolution – but will it’s cultural and commercial flaws collude to hold it back?

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Promotional material for the planned Test between New Zealand and England in Denver, USA.

You wouldn’t call them headlines. They are down-page news stories. But at least they are in the paper, where 10 years ago they would not have been.

I can remember the first time I saw Tonga play Samoa in rugby league. It was 2006 at Campbelltown Stadium; Feleti Mateo had just come back from his stint with London Broncos.

When the two sides got in each other’s faces during their pre-match rituals, we didn’t know what they were called and we’d never seen it before. That’s myself and the other 900 people present.

11 years later, Tonga beat New Zealand to make the World Cup semi-finals – where they were joined by Fiji who have now made it to the final four three consecutive times.

Things have come a long way … but then they haven’t.

Now to those headlines. In the immediate aftermath of the success of tier two nations at the World Cup, Fiji players threatened a strike, Lebanon players threatened a strike while Tonga and Samoa initially baulked at having to go back to Campbelltown this coming June.

New Zealand and England seem to have struck the jackpot by being invited to play in Denver’s Sports Authority Field with the backing of the NFL’s Broncos.

But the NRL clubs resisted this for months and are still grumbling. They didn’t think teams would want to travel overseas for internationals!

There are two competing causal aspects to this apparent cluster-youknowwhat.

One is the old rugby league default position of “what’s in it for me?”; that goes back to 1895 and the George Hotel. The Fijian players argued they were due payments and the Rugby League International Federation has intervened to make sure they are paid.

The Lebanese players seemed more vague, citing only a “lack of trust”. There are whispers of defamation proceedings in response to how this curious dispute has been reported in Australia.

Tonga know that if they played New Zealand three times each year, it would be the Shakey Isles’ answer to Origin. It’s about money – but not necessarily for the players. The Tongan Rugby League doesn’t have too many paʻanga in the bank and what they saw in New Zealand showed they could, and should, have a lot more.

Samoa coach Matt Parish seems unhappy about the level of support from just about everywhere to just about everyone.

So that’s one side of the argument. Rebellion is in the blood. It’s a working class game. You have amateur officials administering teams full of professionals who are used to a certain level of sports medicine and accommodation and remuneration and – as colleague Robert Burgin pointed out – they are arguing over nickels and pennies.

But the other side of the argument is: why should they just be nickels and pennies?

The RLIF has just advertised for two new general managers, one for the northern and one for the southern hemisphere.

That will take the international governing body’s total number of employees to a grand total of three.

Is it any wonder there’s no money, or power, in the international game?

In RLIF speak, Test series are “bilateral” games. That means the countries involved are just left to organise them. The RLIF only gets money from World Cups and the much-vaunted second property, a Nines World Cup, has attracted only luke warm interest from potential partners so far.

Plenty of cynics believe the Nines idea is more to satisfy the Collective Bargaining Agreement in Australia by minimising the wear and tear on NRL players than actually developing the international game.

So there’s our perfect storm: argumentative players and domestic officials and one hand and on the other an under-resourced international federation at the mercy of cashed up, self interested clubs.

But despite all this, and as I said at the start of this column, the arc of the game’s history is bending towards expansion and globalisation – even if incrementally.

It has to. Renowned rugby historian Tony Collins says the digital revolution, like newspapers, radio and television, can and will rearrange the balance of power between sports worldwide.

“We’re now in a position where the prospects for the game, if the opportunities are taken, are brighter than they’ve been for decades,” Collins – whose got a great new podcast called Rugby Reloaded – says.

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©Rugby Reloaded

“You can’t tell because you’re in the middle of it, so it’s hard to get an objective view.

“But I think sport, at the moment, is undergoing a revolution.

“The ease with which you can travel between continents thanks to low cost flights, the ease with which you can communicate across continents thanks to the internet and the way sport can be seen all over the world thanks to digital television really changes the scenario around the world for sport.

“When modern sport first emerged, it emerged at the same time as newspapers. Then you get the radio in the 1920s and 1930s and the same thing happens – radio publicises sport, sport provides the content.

“Despite the obvious weaknesses that the game has, it’s actually in a very strong position to take advantage of the big changes that are taking place now because we are both a mass spectator sport but we’re a small mass spectator sport.

“Things can change quite quickly in rugby league in a way that they can’t in soccer – it’s just a huge juggernaut – and to some extent, in a way they can’t in rugby union because rugby union’s very tightly bound with tradition.

“So the opportunities we’ve got, with the Wolfpack and a World Cup in the States, the possibility of other franchises, the way people are now considering Perth playing in a different comp than the Australian one…

“We can do things that other sports can’t because we’re small and manoeuvrable and still have that mass spectator sport image.

“We don’t have all those guys in blazers, the rampant tradition.

“We’re in this fantastically exciting period – if we take the opportunities.”

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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.

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