ENGLAND LIONHEARTS 26 Vs LIBAN ESPOIR 0
Powder House Lane, Lancaster. 23.08.05
MAN OF THE MATCH: Alan Sultan (Liban Espoir)
Match Report - Rob Shaw
Liban Espoir, the emerging Lebanon team representing the Lebanese domestic league, kicked off their UK tour on Tuesday with an encouraging performance against England Lionhearts.
A modest crowd of 300 braved the wet and windy Powder House Lane, Lancaster to watch the Lionhearts, boasting the cream of the talent playing in the Rugby League Conference, boss the opening exchanges against the young Lebanese team whose average age was just 21.
England prop Harry Heasman set the agenda for the home side with a powerful drive from kick off into the heart of the Lebanese defence. Ricocheting off defenders, Heasman played the ball quickly to hooker Chris Spiers who set up hard-working second rower Carl Leach to keep Lebanon on the backfoot.
The Lionhearts proceeded to make the ideal start, with the first score of the game soon coming from the England right-winger Craig Campbell who raced along the eastern terrace to register the first of his brace of tries in the corner of the ground. 4-0.
Lebanon kicked off once more, but conceded another try in quick succession, with England taking advantage of Lebanon's compressed defensive formation to spin the ball out to the left flank. David West appropriately dived over between winger and centre in front of the western grandstand to the approval of the home crowd. 8-0.
After a third try was conceded with just 10 minutes gone, fears that a capitulation was on the cards were very real, but Lebanon fought their way back into the game after a pressure relieving knock-on from the Lionhearts.
The captain of the shell-shocked Lebanese team, scrum half Jad Abinassif, managed to re-gather his troops and orchestrate some steady territorial advances against the Lionhearts with drives from George Helou and Antoine Samarani.
A further Lionhearts knock-on from an attempted ball steal saw the visitors enjoy a repeated set of possession and a chance to exert some pressure on the Lionhearts' line.
Lebanese substitute Youssef El Helou made good yards after taking the inside pass from Abinassif, but was hauled up short of the line by some aggressive England defence.
Lebanon continued to hammer England with 17-year-old loose forward from Balamand University Alan Sultan becoming increasingly prominent with powerful attacking runs.
A Lebanon penalty on the fifth tackle once again gave the opportunity to register points for the visitors, but was promptly followed by a knock-on handing the initiative back to England.
At this stage of the game, Lebanon were looking much less fragile after having had some solid time in possession with which to come to terms with their opponents. England played out their set with stand-off Paul Lord kicking and finding touch on the last.
From the scrum Lebanon made good yards upfield, and were awarded a penalty for the holding down of pacy winger Naji Bassil. Lebanon found themselves once again applying pressure on England just a few yards short of the try line. Some desperate defence held Lebanon out as the Abinassif and Sultan tried different ways in which to unlock the England defence.
A stray pass from stand-off Wassim Moumneh saw England Winger Craig Campell first to the loose ball, only to knock on with the open field ahead of him.
Once again the increasingly confident Lebanon team applied pressure but crucially were unable to penetrate the England defensive line. On the fifth the high kick was fielded by full back Richard Whitehouse who against the run of play broke through the Lebanon team to go 80 yards to score under the posts.
Although the half-time score of 20-nil was a fair reflection, the run of play was with the visitors and in the second half their improvement continued.
Ably led by scrum half and captain Jad Abinassif, the Lebanese started brightly with an attacking scrum. Notre Dame University student Pierre Nasr joined the line at pace and forced England onto the backfoot with a half-break down the right flank.
Second-rower Hassan Taha consolidated the position in the middle of the field, before gamestar loose forward Alan Sultan broke through the line to take on fullback Richard Whitehouse. Impatiently, Sultan attempted an offload out of the tackle that went to ground, ending the Lebanese's best chance of scoring.
England drove out of their own quarter through the hard work of Stuart Langhorn and Andrew Lake, before launching an attack down the left flank that was forced into touch.
Lebanon's last set with possession represented their improvement, a solid completion and good territorial kick which bought them territory, but a late tactical substitution by England coach Steve Woodburn saw the introduction of fresh legs in the England pack.
Kieron Lacey and Mark Roach set up the final plays of the game which
saw England register the only score of the second half to end the game
Nick Evans, Manager, England Lionhearts:
"With more experience [Lebanon] will go from strength to strength."
"I'd like to pay tribute to the work of Danny Kazandjian, who undertakes an enormous amount of work in managing Liban Espoir. London-born Danny lives in Beirut and has been working hard in his capacity as Lebanese development officer as they look forward to their participation in October's Mediterranean Cup with Morocco and Serbia.
Remond Safi, Liban Espoir head coach:
"Fullback Pierre Nasr had a fantastic game, whilst 17 year old Alan Sultan at loose forward was a revelation"
"Props George Helou and Antoine Samarani had great games taking the ball up all night and 'giving it' to the English"
"As a team we learnt a lot from it, and we are looking forward to our next challenge down in Wales."
Steve Woodburn, England Lionhearts head coach:
"Tonight was a good opportunity for me to blood new lads, we had four debutants who all pushed hard for places within the forthcoming four nations game"
"To be honest we didn't know what to expect, we prepared for a tough battle up front, rather than football ability from the Lebanese"
"I think after the first few minutes we lost a bit of direction [due to] overconfidence"
"It was difficult to bring them back on task and stick to the game plan, but I was very happy with how we performed defensively"
"Chris Spiers [Blackpool Sea Eagles] at hooker went particularly well for us, as did fullback Richard Whitehouse [Telford Raiders]"
"We were delighted with the way the event has been organised, the band, the backroom staff, physios, team doctors etc were great. We've never had such good hospitality - it was a great occasion and would be very happy to come back."
Danny Kazandjian, Manager, Liban Espoir and Lebanese Development Officer:
"This was a really big test for us, but shows we are heading in the right direction"
Press release - Historic day as Lebanon visit - John Thomason
The Lebanese rugby league team come to Lancaster next week
Ten years ago this week, almost one hundred years to the day after the rugby league game, rugby union became openly professional, and the changes that have swept the two codes since have had a massive effect on the national and international profile of both games.
If, in August 1995, someone had suggested that there would be an England XIII, made up of clubs from the length and breadth of the country, rather than three northern counties, you'd have been sceptical.
If someone had told you that this England team would be playing a Lebanese team made up of domestic players from Beirut and other towns and cities in the Middle Eastern country, you'd have pointed at the pig flying past the window.
If you'd then been told that the game was taking place in Lancaster at Vale of Lune, staunch members of the Rugby Football Union, you'd probably have keeled over in stitches.
But here we are, ten years later, and the massive changes to both codes are clear for all to see.
Since the opening up of the 15-man game, and the removal of life bans on anyone that dare consider "going north", league has become one of the fastest growing sports in the UK, with a similar growth increasingly being seen across Europe and the Middle East. The past ten years have brought established competitions in Lebanon, Russia, the USA as well as grassroots growth in the home nations. The past five years have seen the likes of Serbia, Holland, Morocco and Georgia playing regular fixtures.
In England the growth has been mirrored by the expansion of the TotalRL.com Rugby League Conference, which now includes clubs from Whitley Bay in the north east to Plymouth in the south west. The Conference itself is one of the biggest success stories of cross-code cooperation, with many clubs ground sharing facilities and players with established rugby union set-ups.
When Lebanon qualified for the 2000 Rugby League World Cup, with a team made up largely of Australians of Lebanese ancestry, the team arguably faced unfair critism for stretching the grandparents rule to the max, but with next weeks game we will see a certain justification to that policy and the profound effect that it has had on developing the grassroots game in the home country.
To have a player from Beirut, who plays for a Beirut based club taking on a player from the West Country, playing for a Bristol ba sedclub, speaks for itself and the great strides the league game has made over recent years, and to have such a competition taking place in Lancaster is a fantastic honour.