WHEN GIANTS COLLIDE

by John Charlton

A tale of the spread of sport through emigration and immigration

Sport stages some standout fixtures. In football, for example, there's Brazil versus Argentina and Celtic against Rangers. In tennis there's Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal, or, in ice hockey, the USA against Russia. And, of course, England playing Australia in any sport would be a needle fixture.

One contest that probably hasn't featured on most sporting radars is Lebanon versus Ireland in the Rugby League World Cup. It certainly hadn't on mine until I saw it listed recently.

Somehow Lebanon and Rugby League don't quite go together as obviously as, say, Austria and skiing, Japan and sumo wrestling or Britney Spears and Kevin Federline or whoever she's currently canoodling.

No, the 13-man rugby code conjures up visions of macho men of few words barrelling through mud and whatever obstacles lie in their way to move an oval ball towards the opponent's goal line. One image it doesn't throw up is of a Middle Eastern country that doesn't have to look far for its troubles.

Yet, there it is in Group Two of the 2008 RL World Cup: Lebanon on course to qualify.

So, how did we get to here? As usual it's a tale of the spread of sport through emigration and immigration. The Lebanon national team was started by players of Lebanese background who'd grown up playing the game in inner city Sydney, in Australia. Some returned to Lebanon and the rest, as they say, is history or, in this case, Rugby League.

A national team was formed in 1998, since when it has run up victories against opponents as diverse as France, Serbia and Russia, while drawing against the Cook Islands - no mean feat as they won the 1995 Emerging Nations' tournament.

The saga of Lebanese Rugby League also illustrates the lengths some sports must go to in their quest for world status. In truth there are just three Rugby League playing countries of note: the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Conveniently, the UK can be divided into England, Wales and Scotland, with Ireland coming down the blind side.

Nor is Rugby League alone in its paucity of first-class national teams: the same applies, albeit to a lesser degree, to Rugby Union and cricket, which muster about eight first class sides each. Football is the only true world team sport with, arguably, tennis's Davis Cup a distant second.

This is not to say that this state of affairs is permanent. Thirty years ago New Zealand couldn't field a first class rugby league side and neither could Sri Lanka at cricket. Now both are powerhouses, with Sri Lanka a cricket world cup winner.

New Zealand beat the UK recently, only to have the result reversed for fielding an ineligible player. This opens another can of sporting worms: national eligibility.

The general rule of thumb is that if you have a grandparent from a given country, and can prove it, you can play for that country as long as you haven't previously played for another. In New Zealand's case an Australian, Nathan Fien, claimed to have a New Zealand grandmother and was suddenly a Kiwi.

The NZ RL authorities checked this out and discovered Fien's grandmother was, in fact, his great-grandmother. But Chairman Sel Bennett, to whom little things obviously don't mean a lot, passed Fien for muster on the grounds that: "it's a play on words... grandparent, great-grandparent, in a lot of families it's one and the same."

Not in mine, Sel.

If this is happening in rugby, you can rest assured it is happening in other sports, especially in countries which have small pools of players to select from.

The Republic of Ireland football team under Jack Charlton is probably the most famous example. Many of the 1980s and 1990s players were there because of tenuous links with the Old Country - most famously centre-forward Tony Cascarino whom "Big Jack" called "the ice cream man" and the fans "O'Cascarino".

It later turned out that Cascarino had no Irish ancestry whatsoever, since when the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) checks qualification criteria with rigour. In Charlton's time, the FAI was dubbed Find Another Irishman.

Yet putting up with the odd abuse of the international qualification system is a small price to pay for the spread of some great sports throughout the globe.

Anyway, who could begrudge Lebanon a ray of sporting hope? Its RL team looks wellplaced for the 2008 finals after an admirable 18-all draw against Ireland at Dublin's Tolka Park. It could have been better: the Lebanese led 18-12 until stoppage time, when Ireland equalized.

Bring it on

I give quarter to no man in my admiration for downhill skiers. It takes fitness, strength, skill and the heart of a lion to thunder down icy slopes at 80 mph-plus. Yet do they get the credit they deserve?

I don't think so. Outside the mountain and yodelling community of the Alps and The Rockies few have heard of Hermann Maier and Bodie Miller. Why? A solo skier racing downhill against the clock lacks tele-visual appeal.

The solution: A no-holds barred mass descent race. I'd set the video.

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