League looks to unite Lebanon

The president of the Lebanese Rugby League talks exclusively to Al Jazeera.

    Chris Salem of Lebanon who starred against
    Wales will need another big game [GALLO/GETTY]
    When the Lebanese Rugby league side tackle Samoa in Featherstone, they know they have support from across the globe to cheer them on.

    George Elias, President of the Lebanese Rugby League, spoke exclusively with Al Jazeera about the rapid development the game is experiencing in the Middle East and the support the side is getting from the ex-patriate community in Australia.

    The Lebanese community in Australia are some of the most passionate rugby league fans in the country, a fact that is not surprising given the fact that many players of Lebanese heritage have risen to the very top of the game in what is considered the toughest rugby league competition in the world.

    However, as the game is now also starting to make waves in Lebanon as well and as it continues to develop the Cedars attempt to qualify for the Rugby League World Cup are being followed by a growing number of people in the Middle Eastern country.

    "We have witnessed a real boost in the game in the development of the game after launching a domestic competition in 2002," Elias explained.

    "It has generated a lot of interest amongst university students and most recently we have seen the Bank of Beirut come on board with some sponsorship after they recognised the growth of the game."

    The political game

    Sadly, few aspects of Lebanese life are free from the political uncertainty which has plagued the country over the last few years and rugby league is no exception.

    "Unfortunately, the political situation has meant that we have been unable to play two home matches during our qualification period," Elias explained with regret.

    However, while the political struggles haven't helped the national team, Elias believes the team may well yet provide a great boost for the situation at home.

    "We believe that we can unite the nation should we qualify for the World Cup.

    "I can't see any political party in Lebanon not getting behind a team that is representing the country."

    Elias believes that the traits of the team are in many ways reflective of the qualities of the Lebanese people.

    "As a side we are enduring, we continue to develop despite any of our setbacks."

    After defeating Ireland in the semi-final of the repechage 50-26, Elias was keen to talk up the boost the game would receive should the Cedars qualify for their second consecutive Rugby League World Cup.

    "Should the Lebanese team qualify, it would provide great impetus for both rugby league in Lebanon and the Lebanese community in Australia.

    "Our rugby league players already command plenty of respect in Australia, but we are trying to spread the game around the globe and a Lebanese qualification would help us do just that."

    After watching his side fight back from a 20-10 deficit, Elias sang the praises of his side which he believed had set a new standard for the national jersey.

    "There is no doubt that was the best ever performance for a Lebanese team, not only in the quality of football they played, but the passion they showed to pick themselves off the ground," he said.

    Farah stays away

    Robbie Farah will cheer on the team from Sydney
    after red tape prevented him playing [GALLO/GETTY]
    The team was hoping that Wests Tigers hooker Robbie Farah may finally have played for the side in the qualifying final after his club finally agreed to a release only after Elias had called on the Lebanese community in Australia to boycott Wests Tigers matches over the affair.

    But just as it seemed that the Dally M (the NRL's award for best and fairest player for the season) runner up was bound for England the Australian Rugby League stepped in to argue that should the 23 year old represent the Cedars he would be ineligible for State of Origin and Australian selection for two years.

    It was enough to convince the player to stay in Sydney and the Cedars will again look to overlook injuries in order to put a team on the paddock.

    "We have four or five guys who would probably need to have a few weeks off in ordinary circumstances, but that is a luxury we can’t afford," Elias said, admitting his side will again need to overcome the powerful Samoan forwards and medical opinion in order to reach the finals in Australia next October.

    Should they make it, they’ll be plenty of support from Beirut to Bankstown and plenty of places in between.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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