Rugby League: Power of El Masri makes Lebanon unlikely favourites

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ONE OF the code's more unlikely sounding fixtures takes place in Florida this weekend where the United States meet Lebanon for the last place in next year's Lincoln Financial Group World Cup.

The most startling aspect of this final qualifying match is that, surely for the first time in the limited sporting contacts between the two countries, Lebanon start as logical favourites. That is a tribute, more than anything, to the change in Australia's immigration policy in the 1960s. It was then that Lebanese flowed in to some of Sydney's Rugby League heartlands and the side that will play at Walt Disney World in Orlando tomorrow reflects that exodus.

Their undoubted star is Canterbury's Hazem El Masri, a winger in Australia's National Rugby League, but playing at stand-off in order to bring him closer to the action in the World Cup qualifiers.

El Masri scored an international record 48 points with 16 goals and four tries when Lebanon beat Morocco 140-0 last week, although Lebanon's most significant result in the pre-qualifying tournament in the South of France was their victory over an equally Sydney-based Italian side.

Apart from El Masri, who also made a notable impact against British teams in the World Club Challenge in 1997, Lebanon have players with considerable top-class pedigree in the experienced prop, Darren Marroon, and the Sydney City Roosters scrum-half, Paul Khoury.

Despite their long journey, they deserve to be favourites because all of their players have performed to a good standard in Australia. The Americans are more of a mixed bag, with a backbone of players from their domestic competition beefed up with some handy imports.

Their half-back, David Niu, played first grade for St George and they have added some British-based players who qualify through American grandparents in the St Helens pair, Vila Matautia and Julian O'Neill, Salford's Joe Faimalo and Marcus Vassilakopoulos, who ended last season playing for the Hunslet side which took top place in the Northern Ford Premiership.

America beat Canada and Japan without conceding a point to get this far; the winners on Sunday go into the World Cup group next Autumn that also includes Wales, New Zealand and Cook Islands.