Lebanon Finds Identity In An Unlikely Sport: Rugby League

By Huw Richards

International Herald Tribune
Nov 15 2007

The organizers of the Rugby League World Cup next year – the first
since 2000 – could be forgiven for feeling disappointed when Samoa
took the 10th and last place by winning the wild card.

This is not a judgment on Samoa, a powerful and attractive team that
should challenge for a place in the final four when the 13-a-side’s
code championship is played in Australia next October and November.

Too bad, though, that its victim in the final qualifier was Lebanon.

When the Cedars lost, 38-16, to Samoa in Featherstone, England,
on Wednesday night the World Cup lost not only the thousands of
Lebanese-Australians who would have flocked to support their team,
but a romantic story line.

The Cedars represent a nation that, if in not quite as desperate a
state as in the 1980s, is still sufficiently strife-ridden to require
that "home" qualifiers be played on neutral territory. George Elias,
president of the Lebanon Rugby League, explained, "We could have
played in the Lebanon, but we had a duty to the safety of the Irish
and Russian teams."

"Neutral" against Ireland on Nov. 2 meant Dewsbury, not far from
Featherstone, a place far more familiar to the Irish players, most
of whom are based in the north of England. Lebanon had to win, and
was nearly there when Ireland was awarded a debatable penalty. It
was kicked and Ireland secured the draw that took it to Australia
and consigned Lebanon to the wild-card competition.

There, on Nov. 9, it overwhelmed the two-time semifinalist Wales,
50-26, after trailing by 10 points at halftime. By the time it played
Samoa, the Lebanese team was so popular in the city where it has been
based that it was calling itself the "Cedars of Leeds."

In the final playoff it scored four brilliantly contrived tries
but could not cope with the greater power of the Pacific Islanders,
particularly in a first half it finished trailing by 28 points to 8.

"I’m very proud of them," said Darren Maroon, the Lebanon coach.

"They never gave up. This is a young side, and we’ll be back in
the future."

They represent hope not just for a small country and its expatriates,
but for a sport that while constantly hankering after new territory
often struggles to conquer it. The other World Cup qualifiers are:
traditional powers Australia – winners the last six times – New
Zealand, England and France; Pacific islands Tonga, Fiji and Papua New
Guinea; and two teams – Scotland and Ireland – dominated by northern
Englishmen of Celtic descent.

When Lebanon’s team was first launched in the late 1990s it was
regarded as something of a gimmick. It was formed entirely of
Australians, the product of an expatriate community that dates from
the late 19th century and, by happy coincidence, concentrated itself
initially in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, hottest of league’s dominant
city’s hotbeds.

Nick Shehadie, the rugby union player who became Lord Mayor of Sydney,
is of Lebanese descent. So is Steve Bracks, formerly state premier
of Victoria.

Lebanon played in the 2000 World Cup in Britain and was not disgraced.

"After that we were told that if we wanted to continue as a national
team, we had to build some roots in Lebanon," said Elias, who went
to Australia as a child in the 1950s.

The team rose to the challenge. In 2002 Danny Kazandjian – a Londoner
of Lebanese-Armenian extraction and a former colleague of this writer
on a rugby league Web site – was appointed as development officer
and introduced the game into Lebanon’s universities.

Kazandjian, now technical director of the Lebanon Rugby League, told
Al Jazeera television this year: "We enabled them to take the sport,
start it, run it, manage it on a day-to-day basis and develop it.

They’ve taken the idea and turned it into something real and tangible."

Five university-based teams have been playing a twice-a-year
competition since late 2002. Last month the league agreed to a title
sponsorship with Bank of Beirut. A locally based Liban Espoirs squad
complements the main, still overwhelmingly Australian, national team.

There were five Espoirs, three still Beirut-based, in the 20-man
squad for the qualifiers.

Rudy Hachache of Lebanese American University, the domestic
tournament’s all-time leading scorer, told Al Jazeera: "When people
first saw us, they thought we were playing American football. Now
they know it is rugby league."

The game has so far avoided the sectarian tensions that beset Lebanon.

"We have players from the Christian, Orthodox and Muslim communities
and from the start have made it a rule that nobody talks about
religion," Elias said.

Looking forward a decade he dreams of "having a team in the French
or perhaps even the British competition."

Losing a World Cup place won’t help this ambition, but as one player,
Samer el Masri, told Al Jazeera: "We don’t give up. We get knocked
down and we get up and try again. That’s the Lebanese tradition."

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