Lebanese have talent to star on the Disney stage

Dave Hadfield in Florida says a new rugby league nation can upset their hosts

It might run the risk of being tagged a Mickey Mouse competition - and we might as well get that one out of the way in the first paragraph - but the USA and Lebanon will be playing it for real at Walt Disney World later today. The winners of this bizarrely situated final elimination game in Florida will take the 16th and last place in next year's Lincoln Financial Group Rugby League World Cup in Britain, Ireland and France.

It might run the risk of being tagged a Mickey Mouse competition - and we might as well get that one out of the way in the first paragraph - but the USA and Lebanon will be playing it for real at Walt Disney World later today. The winners of this bizarrely situated final elimination game in Florida will take the 16th and last place in next year's Lincoln Financial Group Rugby League World Cup in Britain, Ireland and France.

The Yanks and the Cedars sound unlikely contenders to make up the numbers in the game's biggest ever tournament, but both are deadly serious about their prospects. St Helens' combative forward Vila Matautia has turned his back on his Western Samoan roots to use his grandmother's Hawaiian birthright to play for the States. "I want to be part of something where I could bring some experience and knowledge. The guys here are like sponges; they love the game so much and just want to soak up as much of it as they can," Matautia said.

Apart from him, his fellow British-based Super League players Joe Faimalo and Julian O'Neill, and captain and scrum-half, David Niu, who have experience in Australia, the Americans consist of relative novices from their modest domestic competition. "But there are players here who you could put into Super League," said Matautia. "There is a huge amount of talent, it just needs steering in the right direction. If the game ever catches on here, look out Britain and Australia."

One of the Americans' potential match-winners is their speedy centre from Arizona, Loren Broussard, who has scored a hat-trick in both of the wins, over Canada and Japan, that brought them to this stage and who has ambitions to earn a contract with a British club.

But both he and the hard heads from the British game will find Lebanon a vastly different proposition. That country's rugby league credentials might have been a well-kept secret, but the number of Lebanese players performing at various levels in Australia ensures that they have a highly competent side.

They got to Florida by beating Morocco and Italy, who were so confident of reaching the final that they were booked to travel here already and have come to Orlando regardless. The Lebanese star, Hazem El Masri, is a regular scorer for the Canterbury Bulldogs in the National Rugby League and treats his games for his motherland as though they are at least as important. "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," he said. "We're here for business - to qualify for the World Cup. When we do that, we'll get the respect we deserve."

Steve Ghosn, once a first-grade coach with Western Suburbs in Sydney and now in charge of Lebanon, believes that respect is on its way. "They've no hope," he says of their hosts. "It's been a long flight here from the qualifying competition in the South of France, but our players' attitude has been great. If they play like they've trained, they'll be hard to beat."

The gridiron pitch at Disney's Wide World of Sports has been specially widened for a game that will be controlled by Britain's leading referee, Stuart Cummings, assisted by his director of referees, Greg McCallum, who will run the line and also be miked up to explain the rules to a largely bemused American audience. "Rules?" shouted one during a lead-up match this week. "There are no rules."

Or, as Matautia puts it: "They see us belting the crap out of each other without any helmets or padding and they think it's an absolutely crazy sport."

That could also be the key to the outcome. If Matautia and the trained destroyers from the full-time professional ranks can get to El Masri and the Lebanese midfield, America could go through, which would suit Lincoln, the American-based sponsors of the 2000 World Cup.

If not, the Lebanese have the ability to cause some mayhem. It will then resemble not a Disney cartoon but one from the stable of the opposition - Tom and Jerry.

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