'If you don't know the national anthem, you don't play': Brad Fittler's demand
On Monday afternoon, with storm clouds forming over Concord Oval in Sydney, Lebanon's Rugby League 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 NRL 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 A$325,000 (NZ$357,000) for this tournament.
The Cedars play France in Canberra on October 29, then England (November 4) and Australia (November 11) at Sydney's Allianz Stadium.
- Sydney Morning Herald