Dewsbury next stop on Lebanon's World Cup odyssey

After defeating Russia in Moscow, The Cedars rugby league side face Ireland in West Yorkshire tomorrow in a vital tie. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online

Throughout the Middle East and up the Edgware Road, a surprising number of people of Lebanese extraction will be clustering around television screens at 7.30 tomorrow night to watch a rugby league match from Dewsbury.

The national side – known as The Cedars – have a "home" fixture against Ireland that will put the winners through to next year's World Cup in Australia.

"It's live on TV through the Middle East and we know that there will be plenty of Lebanese watching," says the Lebanese Rugby League's chief operating officer, Danny Kazandjian.

The match is in Dewsbury because of the volatile situation in the Lebanon. "It's a huge shame, but it was a decision taken by the European Federation and a very sensible one," says Kazandjian. "It might seem quiet there at the moment, but the country is virtually paralysed. The presidential elections have been deferred again and the authorities have other things on their minds than providing security for an Irish rugby league team."

If the Lebanese win tomorrow, a World Cup in Australia will represent a trip home for most of them. The easy jibe at them is that they are all Australians and it is undeniably in the inner suburbs of Sydney, as well as well as on the dusty rugby pitches of Beirut and Tripoli, that The Cedars have their roots.

When Lebanese migration to Sydney began to build up 25 years ago, the popular theory was that one thing they would never be interested in was the local rugby league obsession – just what some in Dewsbury might say now about the local Asian population.

Through the Eighties, however, and on the back of the success of players like Benny Elias, the numbers of Lebanese playing and watching rugby league went through the roof. The Bulldogs, from the melting-pot suburb of Canterbury, are the most Lebanese club, but most senior sides in the city and beyond have included players from the most unlikely reservoir of talent.

Kazandjian makes no apology for a heavy reliance on players who have learned the game in Australia. "We use the same eligibility rules as Fifa, the same as the Olympics and we'd be fools not to," he says. At the same time, five of the 19-man squad for the qualifiers are products of a genuine domestic competition in the Lebanon and a representative team made up of residents of the country called Lebanon Espoir.

"Standards have gone up sharply," says Kazandjian. "Our big advantage is that we play eight months of the year, far more than any other developing nation.

"Our coach, Darren Maroon, came over to see the Espoirs beat Serbia with a team of local players and he was amazed by the level of improvement."

The giant Bank of Beirut has become the sponsor for the next three years, all 10 national newspapers cover the game, as well as outlets like Al Jazeera.

Qualification for 2008 would be a major publicity coup, although the Lebanese have been there before, winning a stormy match in Disneyland in Florida – no kidding, I was there – against the USA to qualify for the 2000 tournament. There they gained a creditable draw with the Cook Islands, lost to Wales by only two points and got thrashed by New Zealand.

"I don't think people realise yet how much we have improved since then," says Kazandjian.

There was evidence of that in the way that, even after a 38-hour journey from Sydney, via Dubai and London, Lebanon beat Russia 48-0 in Moscow on Sunday to eliminate one of their rivals for qualification. The Irish, who drew 18-18 with the Lebanon in Dublin last year, will be a much tougher proposition, with several second-generation Irishmen added since.

"I don't know much about them, except that their coach, Andy Kelly, is the Dewsbury coach as well and we're only being allowed one training run on the pitch," Kazandjian says.

The Cedars, installed this week in the hotel on the boundary at Headingley, would be even more confident if they had players like Robbie Farah and Hazem El Masri available.

Farah is rated among the best two or three hookers in Australia, while El Masri has played on the wing for his adopted country and is the best goal-kicker in the National Rugby League. Both were refused permission to play by their clubs, something less likely had it been Australia that had wanted them.

But then life is not meant to be easy or straightforward for a rugby league team representing somewhere as superficially unlikely as the Lebanon. They once had their then coach, John Elias, arrested on charges of gun-running – and that does not happen often in Dewsbury.

Strange world

Australia, New Zealand, England, France and Papua New Guinea have automatic entry into the World Cup. The five remaining places are determined by qualification rounds: two European rounds plus Pacific, Atlantic and repêchage rounds. Tonga and Fiji became the first two nations to qualify when Tonga beat Samoa 18-10 in Leeds on 22 October (Samoa went into the repêchage). Two European teams and one from the repêchage have yet to qualify.

Forthcoming fixtures: Lebanon v Ireland (tomorrow, Dewsbury); Scotland v Wales (Sunday, Glasgow); 9 Nov US v Samoa (Widnes, Game 1); 10 Nov Scotland or Wales v Ireland or Lebanon (Widnes, Game 2); 14 Nov Winner Game 1 v Winner Game 2 (Chris Moyles Stadium, Featherstone).

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