For five local Lebanese rugby league players, the chance to compete in the upcoming Rugby League World Cup is the opportunity of a lifetime. Although it is still a fringe sport in Lebanon, rugby is hugely popular in Australia, where the World Cup is being held. Lebanon’s team, the Cedars, is largely made up of Australian players of Lebanese origin.
Australia hosts a significant Lebanese diaspora, and there are many players of Lebanese heritage in the country’s competitive National Rugby League.
Imad Chidiac, a 21-year-old from Bikfaya, currently studying petroleum engineering at the Lebanese American University, is one of the five local players joining the Cedars at the World Cup. “Most of the guys that are there, I used to watch them on YouTube or TV, so to be part of the whole thing is very exciting,” he told The Daily Star.
Chidiac normally plays for the Immortals team, but the Lebanese league is currently in its off-season.
Chidiac is in training for the tournament, and spoke to The Daily Star at Raw Fitness gym in Jounieh. The gym is run by Raymond Sabat, 20, from Zouk Mikael. Sabat is also one the five-man group traveling to Australia, hoping to be selected to play alongside his heroes.
Both players are aware that because of the gulf in experience between the players from the Lebanese league and those in Australia, it is possible that they might not see any game time at the World Cup. The five domestic Lebanese players have been named as part of a 40-strong initial selection for the Cedars squad.
Once in Australia, after the players have had a chance to train alongside each other, the squad will be further reduced to 24, of which at least one will be a domestic Lebanese player.
Of the 24-man squad, 17 will be picked for each game, with 13 on the field at any one time, and four on the bench. “No-one has their position booked on the team,” Sabat said. “We have to go out there and train hard and prove we’re good enough.”
Whether or not they get to play in the tournament itself, the experience will be invaluable for helping to develop rugby in Lebanon. “We have to learn as much as we can so we can bring it back here,” Chidiac said.
Sabat intends to use everything he learns in Australia to help the next generation of Lebanese rugby players develop. “I started up a school team four years back, and I’m still coaching them now. ... Every year I have about 20 to 30 new guys come in. These people are going to be the future of the game.”
Both players are deeply passionate about the sport.
“Rugby is a minirepresentation of what life is. It’s tough and you have to keep going whenever it gets tougher,” Chidiac said.
Sabat was born and raised in Australia, where his parents moved during the Civil War. Rugby was a part of his life from his early childhood.
“Ever since I was 4 years old I used to drive past my team stadium ... and I used to tell my dad, I want to be on that billboard one day.” The family returned to Lebanon six years ago and now, he says he “can’t see myself anywhere else,” but initially, the transition was not an easy one. “The only thing that was able to get me through was rugby.”
Both the players know that they face significant hurdles to get more Lebanese interested in rugby. “It’s going to take time,” Sabat said. He suggested the problem was not with rugby specifically, but with wider problems surrounding sports culture in the country as a whole. “With Lebanon, sport isn’t always a priority and you can see that through the schools mainly. ... It’s all about the culture. In Australia you have very high priority for sports so I feel like the rise of rugby will happen through the rise of sports in Lebanon.”
Rugby league was first introduced to Lebanon in the late 1990s, when the Lebanese Rugby League was established by a group of Lebanese-origin players in Australia.
For smaller competitions, the Cedars normally field a team of Australian-based players for games in Australia and the Pacific, and a separate team of domestic players for games around Europe and the Mediterranean. The Cedars first competed in the Rugby League World Cup in 2000; they have not qualified for the tournament since, but beat South Africa in 2015 to reach the group stages for the first time in 17 years.
At this year’s World Cup, the Cedars will face tough competition in their efforts to progress past the group stages. They only need to win one game out of three to do so, but two of those games are against formidable English and Australian teams. They will therefore be focusing on their first game, against France, on Oct. 29.
While this will be Chidiac’s first time in Australia, Sabat is looking forward to returning to the town of his birth, which will host Lebanon’s game against the tournament’s host nation. “The big game is going to be against Australia,” he said. “Sydney has a lot of Lebanese, so it’s going to be a [good atmosphere] to see who’s coming out to support Lebanon.”
Information on how to watch the Cedars in the Rugby League World Cup can be found at lebanonrl.com.
Copyright © 2021, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.