Lebanon back on the big stage after qualifying for 2017 Rugby League World Cup

IF there was one positive to come out of the omnishambles that was the 2000 Rugby League World Cup, then surely it was Lebanon establishing themselves on the sport’s map.
It was all widely-derided when it began in 1998; a group of New South Wales-based Australian players using their Lebanese heritage to form a team and represent a country which, at the time, did not even have its own domestic competition.
Even Canterbury Bulldogs’ goal-kicking winger Hazem El Masri – who, incidentally, can count being Lebanon’s record point-scorer among his many achievements – had his doubts when the project was first mooted.
“The first time I heard about something like this, I thought it was a bit of a joke, but these guys are really serious about what they’re doing,” El Masri was quoted as saying ahead of their final qualifier against the USA.
Sometimes though, good things come from what might seem like stupid ideas.
Having comfortably seen off the USA 62-8 at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, the Cedars found themselves placed in Group Two with New Zealand, Wales and the Cook Islands.
A 22-22 draw with the latter gave Lebanon their only point of the tournament, but the wheels had already been set in motion for rugby league finding a home in the Middle East.
And yesterday’s victory over South Africa ensured the team, coached by captain of the pioneering 2000 team Darren Maroon, will be back at the global gathering after a 17-year absence when the next World Cup takes place in 2017.
The intervening years have not always been easy. Although Lebanon won the old Mediterranean Cup three years on the spin between 2002 and 2005, they missed out on qualifying for the 2008 and 2013 World Cups on points difference.
At home, there are open age, collegiate and schools competitions, yet these have, unsurprisingly, been affected by the continual upheaval in the Middle East.
Other issues in the region led to the recent World Cup qualifier being switched to South Africa, but this was nothing to do with the geopolitical situation.
The initial intention was for the match to be played in Dubai, with the UAE earlier in the year announcing its intention to bid for the right to host the 2012 World Cup.
As has often been the case since the great schism of 1895 though, rugby union’s rulers in the region got the hump and the whole thing fell apart following the bizarre turn of events which led to UAE Rugby League chairman Sol Mokdad being arrested.
So, a one-off match became a two-legged play-off hosted by the South Africans, Lebanon running out comfortable 90-28 winners on aggregate.
The Cedars team still comprises a large proportion of heritage players based in Australia, but the likes of Toufic El Hajj (AUB), Ray Finan, Robin Hachache (Jounieh) and Wael Harb (Wolves) plying their trade in the domestic Lebanese competition show the progress which has been made in growing rugby league there.
“This is the best day of my life,” Lebanon captain Chris Saab told the Rugby League Europe Federation website after the 50-16 second-leg win which confirmed their World Cup spot.
“We have been waiting for this moment for a very long time and I hope every Lebanese person – as well as past and present players – have something to smile about.”
The rugby league world has been waiting a long time too and in two years’ time will get to see how far Lebanon have come since those tentative first steps.


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