Julian Vella previews the international fixture between Fiji and Lebanon at Leichardt Oval on Saturday night.
TEAM FORM GUIDE
Coming off their third consecutive semi-final finish at the 2017 World Cup – where they produced their best ever return of four wins in the tournament – Fiji had a disappointing loss to Papua New Guinea last year (26-14), their only match in 2018.
Much like Fiji, the Lebanese side enjoyed a ground-breaking tournament at the 2017 World Cup, winning their first ever Cup match when they beat France on their way to a quarter final berth. Despite a spirited display against the might of Tonga, the Cedars’ cup dream ended there; sadly Lebanon have failed to capitalise on the momentum they built during the tournament and haven’t played a match since.
There are only seven survivors from last year’s loss to PNG, with a host of big names missing, including Jarryd Hayne, Akuila Uate and Kane Evans, whilst captain Kevin Naiqama wasn’t able to secure a release from St Helens to make the trip over.
Fiji will be boosted by the return of forwards Viliame Kikau, Korbin Sims and Jayson Bukuya to their pack, although former Lebanon coach Brad Fittler did the Bati no favours by selecting both Daniel Saifiti and Tariq Sims for NSW; both would have been available for Fiji otherwise.
Fiji squad: 1 Marcelo Montoya, 2 Suliasi Vunivalu, 3 Isaac Lumelume, 4 Mikaele Ravalawa, 5 Maika Sivo, 6 Sitiveni Moceidreke, 7 Brandon Wakeham, 8 Tui Kamikamica, 9 Joe Lovodua, 10 Korbin Sims, 11 Viliame Kikau, 12 Ta’ane Milne, 13 Jayson Bukuya, 14 D’Rhys Miller, 15 Salesi Fainga, 16 Junior Roqica, 17 Penioni Tagituimua, 18 Ratu Nanovo
Lebanon will also be missing many big name players, who for one reason or another have been made unavailable. Captain Robbie Farah made his feelings known when calling out some of the higher-profile players, calling them disrespectful.
The likes of Mitchell Moses, Alex Twal, Adam Douehi and Josh Mansour would have been welcome additions to a side made up of predominately lower grade players. Tim Mannah has made himself available and will be looking forward to getting on the field after tossing up his future recently.
Lebanon squad: 1 Anthony Layoun, 2 Jayden El-Jalkh, 3 Bilal Maarbani, 4 Allan Lockwood, 5 Abbas Miski, 6 Reece Robinson, 7 Robbie Farah, 8 Kayne Kalache, 9 Michael Lichaa, 10 Tim Mannah, 11 Ahmad Ellaz, 12 Elie El-Zakhem, 13 James Roumanos, 14, Jacob Kiraz, 15 Jalal Bazzaz, 16, Toufic El Hajj, 17 Nick Kassis, 18 Amer Ghazzaoui, 19 Georges Yazbek, 20 Michael Tom
HEAD TO HEAD
Fiji and Lebanon have faced off twice before, both in one-off friendly matches in Sydney. Lebanon won the first encounter in 2013 by 34-4, before Fiji returned serve a year later, winning 40-22.
With both sides missing plenty of NRL players, the game has been slightly robbed of some of its quality, but there’s still plenty of players from either side who can turn the game for their nation. This will be an intriguing clash as these sides match up; Fiji’s strengths (their explosive backs and powerful forwards) will cause many headaches for the Cedars, who don’t boast the same calibre of players – such as Maika Sivo, Mikaele Ravalawa and Suliasi Vunivalu – in the backline, or Viliame Kikau, Korbin Sims and Tui Kamikamica in the forward pack.
But Lebanon’s strength will be their experience and smarts around the ruck where Farah and Michael Lichaa will be able to rely on their wealth of NRL experience to gain an advantage over the less-experienced Bati spine. Fiji are missing both Hayne and Henry Rawalui, who guided them through the 2017 World Cup, whilst Manly hooker Apisai Koroisau is also missing. It’s a big blow to Fiji, who will have to rely on halves pairing Siti Moceidreke and Brandon Wakeham, along with the Dragons’ Joe Lovodua, to guide them around the park. It will be interesting to see what part Penioni Tagituimua plays for Brandon Costin’s side; Tagitumua is a halfback from the Fijian local competition, the only local player picked in their squad.
Lebanon have one local player of their own, bench forward Toufic El Hajj, who has found himself in a difficult situation; the Lebanese players are currently having a standoff with the Lebanese Rugby League Federation over the handling of the game in Lebanon. The players have decided to cover the Cedar logo on their jerseys in protest, which has prompted the LRLF to respond threatening bans, fines, and even jail time. For the rest of the squad jail time might not be as big an issue because they don’t live in Lebanon, but for El Hajj the threat is serious.
THE IMPORTANT DETAILS
Date: Saturday 22nd of June
Venue: Leichhardt Oval
Kick-off: 5:40pm AEST
Referee: Matt Checchin and Henry Perenara
WHO WILL WIN?
Putting aside the problems between the Lebanese players and board, the match will be a tough assignment for the under-strength Cedars, who will struggle contain the big Bati forwards and backs. Expect the start to be very willing, but the skill and speed of the likes of Sivo and Kikau will prove too strong for Lebanon.
Fiji by 13+