Jhe main purpose of a World Cup is to grow the game, raise awareness and generate revenue that can be used to promote the sport to new audiences and territories. The performances of Lebanon and – despite their beatings in the final group matches, Greece and Jamaica – should have done it.
There will always be one-sided scores. The lower seeds have to face the top teams at some point, even if scheduling those matches at the end of the groups – when they lack energy and are homesick – seems cruel. Some of the results from last weekend were brutal – England 94-4 Greece, Tonga 92-10 Cook Islands, Lebanon 74-12 Jamaica, Australia 66-6 Italy and Samoa 62-4 France – but we must not let ourselves carried away by hysteria. In several cases, full-time professionals naturally hammered a group of part-timers.
It’s no surprise that the heroic Greek debutants conceded 200 points in the death squad. The mostly part-time Cook Islands and Italy dispatched 130, Jamaica 190. Even Scotland, with a half-staff of full-timers, conceded 142. And yet the Country of Galles fought heroically to keep his dignity intact throughout a bruised Group D.
Scores can also be cruel. Surprisingly, Jamaica had very close to 50% possession against Lebanon; they have completed 87% of their 30 sets; and made only seven errors. They knew what they were doing. Likewise, Italy made Australia work hard for their 66 points.
We should be more concerned about how France’s squad of Super League players fell apart against Samoa; The Irish side of Super League regulars failed to cope with a Lebanese side consisting mainly of NSW Cup players; and the way Scotland melted away against Australia. Teams from the northern hemisphere – mostly products of the Super League and England’s player development system – have fallen miles behind those hardened in the NRL.
Having a few NRL superstars obviously helps. On Sunday, the Jamaican side, made up mostly of Ligue 1 players, were beaten by Lebanese trio Mitchell Moses, Adam Doueihi and Josh Mansour, who scored 38 points between them. Jamaica had no one of that quality to call on, but their contribution was important, not only to the festive atmosphere of the event, but also to the growth of the sport.
Jamaica head coach Romeo Monteith and second rower Chevaughn Bailey – a physical education teacher at Kingston Primary School – explained after the match how their appearance at the World Cup would help develop the sport in home, where there were 900 registered players before the pandemic. “People say the World Cup should only be five or six nations – that’s rubbish,” Monteith said. “Yes, we had explosive scores, but tell me one sport that doesn’t. Creating a legacy, that’s what it’s all about. There are thousands of children at home looking for an opportunity – the fact that children are being offered scholarships to go to university to play rugby league makes it all interesting.
The sport also continued under extraordinarily difficult conditions in Lebanon. “They are making life difficult in Lebanon at the moment,” coach Michael Chieka said after his side won a quarter-final against Australia. “They are doing a great job of keeping rugby league alive in very, very difficult circumstances. If we can raise awareness by comparing cedar to the best in the world, that’s great.
The dozens of Lebanese supporters waving flags, tarbouchs or scarves at Leigh Sports Village seated among hundreds of Jamaican supporters – including England hero Dom Young, gazing at his brother Alex – dressed in green, black and gold, embodied the possibilities. Many Tonga fans who follow their team have come from the United States, the Netherlands and Germany with little or no knowledge of rugby league. They’re at the tournament to be patriotic, see old friends, and have fun.
The World Cup offers international teams a unique opportunity to market the sport. Where else would Lebanese fans rejoice to see their national team victorious on the world stage? Having a credible dating roster gives these countries a better chance of attracting eligible high-level players.
There’s no denying that many teams are as full of players born in England or Australia as they were in 2000. Ireland have fielded as many local players at this World Cup as they did 22 years ago (one), the Scotland the same (none). Striker Gioele Celerino was the only Italian-born and raised player to step onto the pitch for the national team – for 14 minutes – and neither of Lebanon’s two national players look likely to feature now.
But what is the alternative? A World Cup without heritage players would be much less attractive and therefore financially disastrous. And there are positive signs that homegrown players will have more chances in the future. Jamaica gave appearances to five players who learned the game on the island; Greece presented seven national products; four other Italians trained intensely for three weeks and will bring this experience back to their clubs.
And it’s not all about the players. Monteith highlighted the importance of upcoming coaching and referee development programs in Jamaica; Italy have brought national coaches, physios, conditioners and administrators to their camp to experience elite rugby league.
Any criticism of the players and coaches who participated in the tournament is grossly unfair. They are only guilty of love for their country and devotion to a cause. Many have been playing for a decade, with some going beyond the call of duty. When his job as a software engineer brought Greek striker Grigoris Koutsimpogiorgos to Brussels, he traveled to the Netherlands to play for the Rotterdam Pitbulls in preparation for his World Cup debut. Celerino moved from northwestern Italy to southern France to pursue his rugby league dream. “It doesn’t matter how much I’ve played – the most important thing is the journey,” he said after facing Australia. “I found the richest things: met a lot of people, had a lot of great experiences that made me a richer person. We will remember this story all our lives.
Trending: Khaled Rajab, Lebanon
Canterbury Bulldogs’ tall, bearded and ponytailed full-back Khaled Rajab admirably replaced Adam Doueihi against Ireland and then retained his place against Jamaica. Given his two tournament performances so far, it’s no wonder the 20-year-old, stocky and quick with great distribution and elusive feet, will be playing with the first team when he returns to the Bulldogs.
world cup memory
Without second- and third-generation players, the only countries that could stay full would be the five that made up the World Cup in the 1980s: Australia, France, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Britain. With so few teams, two successive competitions spanned three years each, awarding points for some Test Series matches. The 1995 tournament opened the door for nations such as Tonga, Samoa and Fiji who have flourished over the past quarter century to become real contenders.
what they said
“A little silky, huh?” That’s how Italy’s second rower Rinaldo Palumbo described his gymnastics touchdown against Australia. “You play football long enough to know how the ball is going to bounce sometimes and I just got lucky with that.” Palumbo is now returning home to Australia to get married before returning to the London Broncos – and his part-time job as a barber – next year. “Few customers know that I play,” he says. “I try to separate work and football, but I’m sure some will have seen me on TV and will be happy and excited for me.”
Off the record
“Leigh is not the easiest place to get to. It’s on the map and if you could fly, you’d be there in no time. But by train, it’s almost like going to the end of the world. You have to start early in the morning. So wrote the Athletic News in 1899. Not much has changed, so credit the 5,000 spectators who turned up at Leigh Sports Village – a great venue, if you’re driving – for midday on Sunday. Among the visitors was agent, Sam Ayoub, who had breakfast with Wigan striker Joe Shorrocks before meeting other clients after the match. Expect at least one more Lebanese player to be in the Super League next season.
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