BEIRUT: The Lebanese rugby union season may have only finished a fortnight ago, but the game’s protagonists are already preparing for next year. On June 23, Jamhour clinched the Lebanese Championship Cup in Bhamdoun, winning for the first time in 11 years.
The fingerprints of the players are still fresh on the trophy as development officer Steve Wrigglesworth plots out the future of Lebanese rugby.
Wrigglesworth, who is also the national team coach, has already noticed a significant improvement in the nation’s young athletes, marking out Anthony Cassab, George Nabba, Khale al-Cheikhissa, Cyril Nasser and Anthony Yaaccoub and others as future senior players.
“Our main aim this year was development,” Wrigglesworth told The Daily Star, “and I think our aim next year will be development.
“One of the key things in our development is that we need four clubs playing regularly [to acquire full membership with the Asian Rugby Federation]. We started off the season really well, but in the middle of the season we lost our way a little bit because of the weather in January, February and we lost a bit of momentum. It took us a little while to regain that, and because of the loss of momentum, it was disheartening. The positives were that we kept the academy going, although we didn’t manage to get an end of season tournament. But I think we came through that, the university sevens tournaments and we had a really good end of season Beirut 10s tournament.”
Lebanese rugby is still very much in its infancy as the game’s administrators look to build the sport through schools around the country.
“In terms of development we’ve done well, there are lessons to learn, and now we have more people, senior players, volunteering to take on extra roles next year. Last year it was just the chairman, myself and a couple of helpers. The clubs, the schools, the universities, we’re all pulling together and hopefully we’ll be having a new team by Christmas. There’s some real positives to take into next season.”
Developing a sport in a country from scratch is no easy task, however. Trying to overcome the twin titans of basketball and football in the hearts of minds of young Lebanese is a significant obstacle, alongside other, more practical problems.
“Last September we had the boys come down from Tripoli – about 10. They came down to the schools tournament, although when the troubles started they couldn’t get out of the city, so that stopped that. I think we have to bridge that. There’s work to be done up there; there is a small nucleus up there and it would be good to tap into that,” Wrigglesworth said.
“We have some schools, Jamhour, Champville, and a couple of the universities, and we also have a ladies’ team (of about 30 girls). It’s little steps – we have a schools co-coordinator, an academy coach, but to go out of Beirut is the key and getting that visualization on the TV, which will always be difficult competing with basketball and football.”
While Lebanese rugby continues to take tiny baby steps, it has jumped ahead of other fledging associations due to the presence of a young star who can act as an example to other young players and help push the Lebanese team to new heights.
Karim Jammal grew up playing rugby in England, where he represented Worcester Warriors and England at the junior level, and his speed, skill and leadership are invaluable in trying to convince people to take up the game.
“I think rugby needs to be played in schools,” Jammal told The Daily Star. “In Lebanon, in school life they follow more of the American culture, the way they talk, the way they dress, and because of that, the schools we go to use the American system. What’s important to us is that [kids] here play basketball, it’s the national sport; because of the system the first sports they play are basketball and football. As long as we start getting rugby in these schools, after a generation it [playing rugby] will be the norm. TV channels need to carry more games to create more exposure for the game so people understand it more. That’s the only way it can progress.”
Wrigglesworth is also heavily involved in Cypriot rugby, giving Lebanon the advantage of having a direct comparison in terms of their own progress.
“The rugby in Cyprus is dominated by the military – four of the seven clubs are military. Their development at under-18 level is somewhat stalled because they have national service, but the development here is far better and more advanced. They [the Cypriots] are now taking our [Lebanon’s] ideas back because they can see developments are working.
“If the club rugby gets going then it will encourage all the 17- and 18-year-olds to join the clubs, but the priority is to get players coming through,” Wrigglesworth said.
It may take a generation for Lebanese rugby to stand comfortably on two feet, but with each baby step each season, Wrigglesworth and his colleagues edge ever closer.