Toufil Elhage, Imad Ohidiac, Brad Fittler, Raymond Sabat, Wael Harb and Ali Abou Arabi all members of the Lebanon rugby league team pose for a photo at Concord Oval in Sydney on Wednesday, October 11 2017. Photo by Cole Bennetts.On Monday afternoon, with storm clouds forming over Concord Oval, Lebanon’s World Cup squad gathered around coach Brad Fittler ahead of their first training session.
“It’s very simple,” Fittler told them. “If you don’t know the words to the anthem, you don’t play.”
Led by five players who flew in from Lebanon just a week earlier, the entire squad then belted out a rousing rendition of the national anthem in Arabic.
Then it rained. Then it stopped. Then a double rainbow appeared as Fittler put his squad of NRL, under-20s and NSW Cup players through a tough session.
“All these guys are very honoured and proud to represent Lebanon in the World Cup,” Fittler says. “But knowing the anthem is non-negotiable.”
Fittler has been listening to the anthem while driving in his car, doing his best to learn it. He’s struggling but at the very least can do the traditional dance of shaking one hand in the air, one down by his side.
“Change the light bulb, pat the dog,” laughs Tarik Houcher, who alongside Mercel Sage and Neil Dunkley, has been developing the game in Lebanon over the past three years.
Something special is building in the Lebanese camp ahead of their World Cup campaign.
It features stars Robbie Farah, Tim Mannah, Mitchell Moses and Michael Lichaa.
Code-hopping outside-back Reece Robinson was a surprise late inclusion in the squad named on Thursday evening, having spent the last two seasons with the NSW Waratahs. He’s been linked with a return to his former club Parramatta.
But the best stories, here in the fading light at Concord, are with the five players who have come from their home country with a shot of making Fittler’s final 24-man squad.
Ali Abou Arabi, 24, is a hulking second-rower who plays for LaTripoli RLFC, lives in the mountains two hours out of Beirut and carries logs up them to get fit.
“It’s a tough sport and I have a tough nature,” he says.
He angrily walked away from basketball when his coach told him, “There are five on the court, three on the bench, the rest clap – you can clap”.
Three years later he gave away his job just to be here.
“When they called and told me I was coming to the World Cup I was crying,” he says, his voice quivering with passion. “It means a lot to me. My friends don’t support me. I came here with $500. I’m an engineer. I am jobless because I am here. But I don’t care.”
Imad Chidiac, 21, is a five-eighth for Immortals RLFC and says he does only two things with his time. “I am studying petroleum engineering at university – and I play footy.”
He supports the Melbourne Storm. “Because I love Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater,” he says. “I love the Storm’s culture. They strive to be better and better and that’s what me and my family are all about.”
Toufic El Hage, 21, is a front-rower who plays for Wolves RLFC, and he doesn’t support the Storm.
“South Sydney,” he says proudly. “I watched something on YouTube about the history of the club. It was about working hard to get what you want. I love that passion because it relates to my background, how I was brought up. We watch everything back home: NRL, Super League, State of Origin.”
Wael Harb, 30, is from a small village in the north and plays for Lycans FC. In the final running drill of the session, he led the way, getting to the 10 metre, 20 metre and 30 metre line before everyone else – then he collapsed.
“I had blurry vision,” he smiles. “Then I slept.”
Raymond Sabat, 20, an outside-back who also plays for Lycans FC, was born and raised in Sydney before moving to Lebanon when he was 14. Would he make Fittler’s final squad? “Yes,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m confident in myself.”
So he should be. On Thursday night, at a function at Le Montage, Sabat was named in Fittler’s final 24-man squad for the tournament.
Lebanese rugby league has often been beset with messy politics but you cannot deny the local community’s passion with sponsorship sitting around $325,000 for this tournament.
The Cedars play France in Canberra on October 29, then England (November 4) and (November 11) at Allianz Stadium.
WHERE TO FOR FARAH?
Farah played one Test for Lebanon in 2002 when he was a teenager. He turned up to training this week in a Souths singlet.
If you listen to the rumour mill, he’s unlikely to wear a Souths jumper again.
We’re assured he won’t be going to the Bulldogs with Lichaa not far away from agreeing to terms to stay at Belmore. Farah has also been linked to his former club Wests Tigers. Again, we’re told that won’t be happening.
Meanwhile, I can exclusively reveal that Cooper Cronk will do something with someone next year. Remember: you read it here first.
ANGER OVER ANGE’S ANTICS
Surely you cannot be Syria, Ange!
After the Socceroos crawled through to the final round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup with an extra-time win over the Middle Eastern minnows, reports emerged that coach Ange Postecolgou wants out.
Postecolgou had communicated not a word of this to FFA boss David Gallop when they spoke on Wednesday morning. He didn’t dismiss it, either, when they spoke later in the day.
His passion is hard to fault but to have his impending departure hanging over the national team heading into next month’s play-off against Honduras is selfish. It wouldn’t surprise if it ultimately sabotages the campaign.
Apparently he’s angry that Fox Sports experts Robbie Slater and Mark Bosnich have been ruthless in their criticism. Slater has called for the coach’s head.
Sure, they are former Socceroos players but now they’re paid members of the media. They’re not supposed to be cheerleaders. They hold a microphone, not pom-poms.
And you would think Postecoglou would have thicker skin. He’d never survive in rugby league.
Slater is close to Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold, who many believe should have the job. Given his passion for the game and his credentials, how can it be anyone else?
It’s hard to see Sydney FC standing in his way if the national job becomes vacant, but we can already forecast some tense negotiations over his release given the frosty relationship between the club and the FFA.
A MAN OF HIS WORD
Love him or loathe him, at least you know where you stand with AOC president John Coates.
Coates was at his brutal best in a Good Weekend profile piece last weekend when Jane Cadzow asked him about running into n Sports Commission chairman John Wylie at an athletics meet earlier this year.
“I don’t shake hands with liars,” Coates reportedly said to Wylie. “I don’t shake hands with c—s.”
Cadzow asked if Coates regretted his choice of words.
“No, no, no,” Coates replied. “That was genuine.” Q&A: Amin Elhassan
We speak to the outspoken ESPN analyst ahead of the NBA season.
What are you expecting from the ns this season, especially Ben Simmons?
Simmons is my pick for rookie of the year. As a second-year rookie, Simmons has the advantage of having gone through an NBA season already. The only adjustment he has to make is to playing ball, while his competition has a lot on their plate to deal with. Simmons has the ball in his hands a lot, giving him the freedom to make plays for himself and others. Elsewhere, of course the news about Dante Exum [being injured] is quite disappointing, as this would mark two out of three years where he would miss the entire season. It’s hard for a young player to find his basketball identity when his minutes are erratic.
What are your thoughts on American sportspeople taking a knee during the national anthem and do you expect to much of it during this NBA season?
I am a Sudanese citizen and I spent much of my formative years in a Sudan that was ruled by a totalitarian regime, where freedom of speech and a free press didn’t exist. The ideals of the US and the freedoms the constitution and what the bill of rights provide its citizens is what makes this country special. As far as the players go, what LeBron James said probably rings truest, referring to his voice being much more powerful than his knee. Unlike the NFL, NBA players enjoy a lot more public recognition and influence than their NFL counterparts so they have both the opportunity and the job security to get their message heard verbally rather by silent protest.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr’s remarks on the issue and about Trump resonated the loudest for me. You worked under him at one stage. Is he as impressive as he sounds?
Steve Kerr is the greatest leader I have ever worked for. He is knowledgeable, empathetic and intellectually curious, and has a family background in diplomacy and personal loss [his father was a diplomat who was assassinated by terrorists]. Of course, beyond his personal characteristics, Kerr enjoys the luxury of being incredibly successful on the court and a perspective in life where his job is not the be-all, end-all. He’s as impressive as he sounds and more.
The NBA season on ESPN starts next Wednesday at 11am when the Boston Celtics meet the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“A zebra never changes its spots, brother.” – Bathurst 1000 champion David Reynolds when asked if his famous victory on Sunday would change his zany personality. Reynolds is officially my new favourite person.
The late, great Mike Cockerill wrote this in a column early last year about Tim Cahill: “The name of his book? ‘Legacy’. I always thought that was for others to decide”. Cahill’s legacy is starting to turn into legend with his two goals for the Socceroos that kept our World Cup dreams alive.
US President Donald Trump condemns the politicisation of the national anthem when athletes take a knee in protest when it is played. What to make, then, of vice-president Mike Pence’s sickening stage-managed exit from an Indianapolis Colts match after San Francisco 49ers players protested. Yuck.
It’s a big weekend for ??? the Western Sydney Wanderers, who lost coach Tony Popovic on the eve of the season but beat Perth in the opening round and now face on Saturday Central Coast Mariners at their temporary digs at Spotless Stadium.
It’s an even bigger weekend for ??? US singer Jason Derulo, who reportedly cried in Kyle Sandilands’ arms after his break-up with Lara Bingle. Let’s see how he feels when he performs after the last at Royal Randwick on Saturday.