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Lebanon’s all-time rugby league XVII

The next six months are going to be hectic. The Tour de France just rolled out of Copenhagen and Australia’s male Test cricketers are playing away in Sri Lanka.

There’ll be another summer of Test cricket, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and St George Illawarra’s inevitable run to the 2022 NRL premiership, among other things.

That’s all well and good, but the jewel of the world sporting crown is scheduled to take place in England during October and November – the Rugby League World Cup.

Mike Meehall Wood is already giddy with excitement and has produced some international power rankings, with a stacked New Zealand team the early favourite.

[power rankings: https://www.theroar.com.au/2022/06/28/international-power-rankings-are-the-kiwis-now-favourites-for-world-cup/]

As the players, coaches, referees and Roarers limber up for the big dance, I’ll be looking back at some of the finest to represent the nations about to compete for the biggest prize in world sport.

Roar Guru Tony has partly beat me to it, having already selected all-time teams from Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands, as well as a selection of the best New Zealand players of the past 50 years. I won’t attempt to replicate Tony’s work.

I’ll have a go at nine of the remaining ten nations and I’ll leave the all-time England team dangling for somebody else to claim.

First up is the pride of Lebanon. On 11 July 1998, a significant game was played at Leichardt Oval. It was Lebanon’s international debut and Italy’s first international appearance in more than 38 years.

The Cedars, led by the nomadic and infamous John Elias, prevailed 24-6 and have gone on to produce some very respectable performances, qualifying for the world cup two years later and losing narrowly to Tonga in the 2017 quarter final.

Which brings me to a conundrum common to many Tier 2 nations. Do you pick the high-profile players who turn-up for the world cup, or the journeymen who do the grunt work of qualifying and playing in the unglamorous off-season tournaments that build a foundation?

To be fair, many have done both and I’ll pick selections of both journeymen and stars. Without further ado, here’s the all-time Cedars XVII.

1. Hazem El Masri (9 caps)

Not surprisingly, the man who once held Australian rugby league’s all-time point-scoring record still holds the record for Lebanon. Even as his career was taking off at Canterbury in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, El Masri made a significant contribution to Lebanese league.

He played in three Mediterranean Cups, was part of qualifying for the 2000 World Cup and played a key role in securing Lebanon’s first point at a world cup, scoring twice in their 22-22 draw with the Cook Islands at Cardiff.

Hazem El Masri of the Blues

Hazem El Masri of the Blues 

2. Hassan Saleh (8 caps)

Like El Masri, Saleh was a key player against the Cook Islands at the 2000 World Cup, and he had a decent NRL career, playing 44 games for Wests, St George Illawarra and Cronulla between 2001 and ’04.

He continued playing for Lebanon until 2007 before becoming a small and largely unwitting part in the disturbing and tragic saga of the late Ryan Tandy.

[disturbing and tragic saga: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-08/gambling-led-to-nrl-footballer-ryan-tandys-life-unravelling/5440368]

In 2014, Saleh told the ABC, “You look now at all the sports betting agencies; everyone’s got an ex-sports star, ex-footballer spruiking their business and they’re not bad jobs for those sort of boys, but, you know, it gives us accounts with credit, it gives you a line to get yourself into trouble”.

3. Abbas Miski (10 caps)

Miski’s the son of Lebanese migrants who settled at Penrith and he eventually ended up in the St George Illawarra and Parramatta junior systems. He debuted for Manly in 2019 playing six games over the following two seasons and is currently at Wigan after a prolific season for London in 2021.

Long before he cracked first grade, Miski debuted for Lebanon against Fiji in 2014 and went on to play all four games at the 2017 World Cup, scoring twice against Tonga in the quarter final.

He’s also rumoured to be Josh Mansour’s long-lost twin.

[long-lost twin: https://twitter.com/rugbyleaguemen/status/1396377523102142466?lang=en]

4. Jacob Kiraz (2 caps)

Kiraz’ career at Canterbury and at international level are both in their early days but he appears to have a bright future.

Kiraz debuted for Lebanon against a strong Fiji team at Leichardt Oval in June 2019, and then played halfback and scored twice in Lebanon’s 42-16 victory over an understrength Fiji at Ringrose Park in September of the same year.

5. Josh Mansour (3 caps)

‘Sauce’ has played more internationals for the Kangaroos than the Cedars, including one game against Lebanon at the 2017 World Cup, but he deserves some credit for mucking in during Lebanon’s European Cup campaign in 2009 where he scored in every game.

Josh Mansour of the Rabbitohs runs

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

6. Adam Doueihi (6 caps)

Doueihi first came to prominence at the 2017 World Cup where, alongside Mitch Moses and Robbie Farah, he helped Lebanon to their first major tournament victory and a quarter final against Tonga.

His NRL career took-off at Souths shortly thereafter and one hopes he’ll feature in England later this year.

7. Mitch Moses (4 caps)

I very nearly gave this spot to Paul Khoury, one of the pioneers of ’98 and the 2000 World Cup.

Then I remembered Moses’ brilliant performance against France at Canberra in 2017 – and my own despair at the time – and decided the architect of Lebanon’s first world cup victory had to be here.

8. Darren Maroon (7 caps)

Maroon was selected to represent NSW at SG Ball level in 1983 but only managed 61 first grade games over ten seasons at Souths, Manly and Easts.

Just as his career was fizzling out, the opportunity to represent Lebanon came along and Maroon finished his career as captain in all three games of the Cedars’ 2000 World Cup campaign.

9. Robbie Farah (7 caps)

Farah was captain of the Cedars at the 2017 World Cup and has been a leader through thick and thin over the past few years.

When Lebanon’s 2017 campaign came to an end, Farah tweeted to fans that, “You have a team that displays everything it is to be Lebanese. Passion. Pride. Hard work. And never giving up. A team you can be proud of and one that earned the respect of the rugby league world”.

Robbie Farah

Robbie Farah of Lebanon in action during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup match between England and Lebanon at Allianz Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

10. Tim Mannah (5 caps)

I always liked Tim Mannah, a wholehearted prop who played over 200 games for Parramatta and four Origins for New South Wales, before representing the Cedars at the 2017 World Cup.

There’s one player in this team (see below) who conforms to a pernicious stereotype about Lebanese Australians that people like Mannah have done a great job refuting.

Before the 2017 tournament, Mannah said, “I think it’s a great chance for us to go out there on a big platform and big stage [and show] the real Lebanese culture and show everyone the stereotype that we’ve held for a long time isn’t the real culture we have”.

11. John Elias (2 caps)

I suppose the inaugural captain and try-scorer in Lebanon’s first international should be here. He made a significant contribution to the Cedars and had a fascinating career, playing 136 first grade games for five Sydney clubs, as well as stints with clubs in Brisbane, England and France.

There was also another life. In 2010, with the help of Josh Massoud, Elias published Sin Bin the story of his double life as rugby league player and underworld figure.

In his own words, “In October 1990 I was many things. I was a top-grade rugby league player. I was also a convicted criminal who kept coming back for the buzz. Any chance I had of leading a straight, law-abiding life ended after spending 18 months among the state’s worst felons at Long Bay Jail when I was a teenager”.

“I bashed people, robbed shops then graduated to debt collection and stand-over work. I led a double life, which everyone suspected, but only a chosen few knew the whole truth”.

And that’s just part of the story.

12. Chris Saab (17 caps)

Saab’s a great rugby league story. He never made it to first grade and spent most of his career playing Ron Massey Cup with Guildford, Mounties and the Sydney Bulls.

But the Cedars remained a passion. After debuting against France at Tripoli in 2002, he played in two failed qualifying campaigns before finally reaching the promised land after victory over South Africa in the qualifiers for 2017.

Playing for Lebanon was the “highlight of his career” and the veteran of third-tier league started for Lebanon in their 0-34 defeat to Australia at the 2017 World Cup.

[highlight of his career: https://youtu.be/tlZNTYixwQQ?t=137]

13. Chris Salem (19 caps)

Like Saab, Salem never made it to first grade but did become Lebanon’s all-time appearances leader and, apart from appearing the 2000 World Cup, mostly toiled away in the off-Broadway tournaments and world cup qualifiers.

He played in all of Lebanon’s qualifiers for the 2008 tournament and was captain as the Cedars lost the final qualifier to Samoa at Featherstone in November 2007. He was also captain of the team that finished third at the 2009 European Cup.

Bench: Alex Twal (4 caps), Ray Daher (7 caps), George Ndaira (9 caps) and Paul Khoury (8 caps)

Twal’s been demoted to the bench for being a world cup glory boy. Daher was a star schoolboy player for Parramatta Marist, alongside Nathan Cayless, who didn’t crack first grade but did play at the 2000 World Cup.

Ndaira played 25 first grade games and was another stalwart of the 2008 qualifying campaign. Khoury steered the team around in ’98 and at the 2000 World Cup.

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