Rugby League World Cup: Lebanon exceed expectations and surprise the world

Shadi Talhouk
Contributing Writer

19 years ago Lebanon played their first ever 13-a-side Rugby League game against Japan. Later on, in 2000, they beat Morocco, Italy, and the USA to qualify to their first ever World Cup, where they drew one group game against the Cook Islands and lost the other two against Wales and finalists New Zealand. Lebanon have failed to qualify to every World Cup since.

Fast forward to 2015, and the Cedars were convincingly beating South Africa in both their World Cup Qualification games with an aggregate score of 90-28 to secure a place at the 2017 World Cup. With qualification settled, many local Rugby League players started prepping themselves for the World Cup in hopes of getting a shot at representing their nation at the grandest stage.

One of those players was AUB’s very own Toufic El-Hage, who after continuous effort and hard work eventually got his chance in the 2017 training squad, a huge feat for a player who only started playing Rugby League at the age of 18. He is now only 22 years old.

Qualification, however, did not only attract the interest of local players. It also caught the attention of professional Lebanese-Australian Rugby League stars who were eligible to represent Lebanon due to their family history. National Rugby League (NRL) stars such as Robbie Farah, Mitch Moses, Tim Mannah, and Michael Lichaa all decided to join the Lebanese outfit and represent their families’ origins. Something worth pointing out was their acceptance to get paid just $30 a day to play for the Cedars, which is a massive pay cut from their average professional incomes. Their inclusion to the team added some much needed experience to a Lebanon side filled with part time players. Most of Lebanon’s players would work full time and practice with the squad after their work shifts.

Lebanon announced Brad Fittler as head coach of the national team and he started off by guiding his side to a 32-16 win over Niue in a preparation match. Toufic El-Hage played around 20 minutes in the game, wreaking havoc on the opposition defense and not looking out of place in the slightest. Despite his dominance on the field, Toufic would not be picked for the 24 man World Cup squad.

The Cedars were drawn in Group A of the World Cup along with co-hosts and heavy weights Australia, England, and France. The top three teams in this group would proceed to the quarter-finals, and with it being unlikely that France and Lebanon would beat Australia or England, the hopes of a quarter-final berth for either team rested on their game against one another. The Cedars were clear underdogs going into the match, but to everyone’s surprise and joy, Lebanon won their first ever World Cup game, beating the French 29-18, the highlight of the game a stunning solo try by Parramatta Eels star Mitchell Moses. The win more or less guaranteed them qualification to the quarter-finals.

The historic win put Lebanon on the map in the Rugby League world with posts about the win flooding Instagram and Facebook. The win even was even commended by the Lebanese Rugby Union Federation, an honorable but unexpected act considering the negative history between the two codes.

On to the second game and Lebanon faced a star studded England side, their most notable player being Canterbury Bulldogs prop James Graham. Not much was expected from the Cedars who were fielding only a few professional Rugby League players, but to everyone’s surprise, they managed to constantly trouble the English side. After an early try from England, Lebanon were able score a try to level the scores at 6-6. Despite the intense efforts of the Cedars, their inexperience started to show as England ended the first half with a 22-6 lead. A strong second half defensive effort by the Cedars limited the English to just one try in the second half with the game ending at 29-10.

Lebanon’s third and final group game was a 34-0 loss against tournament favorites Australia. Despite the massive points difference, it was a decent performance from the Cedars who put in an admirable defensive shift and kept the score lower than most people expected.

France lost both their games against Australia and England, which guaranteed Lebanon’s progression to the quarter-finals and automatic qualification for the 2021 World Cup. The Cedars faced Tonga in the quarter-finals and again were expected to be run over by the Tongan powerhouse who had beaten New Zealand a week earlier. That was not the case as Lebanon rallied till the last minute of the game, losing 24-22 with a highly controversial call against a Mitch Moses try costing them the game.

Despite losing three games and only winning one, the Cedars’ efforts won the hearts of Rugby League fans worldwide and especially the Lebanese supporters around the world.

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