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France v Lebanon preview
Pool A also-rans look to build for the future
Having been drawn alongside heavyweights Australia and England, the chances of either France or Lebanon making any significant impact during the World Cup would charitably appear negligible. However, in a sign of the true value of the tournament in bringing a wealth of sides together to grow the game internationally, Sunday's fixture may well prove to be the most meaningful match-up in Pool A.
While in years gone by the French may have been a formidable opponent for the Top Tier sides, recent performances during the World Cup suggest an increasing distance expanding for les Chanticleers. With the ascendance of the Pacific Islands creating further challenges, coach Aurélien Cologni will be looking to use the opening fixture of the tournament as gauge of where his side needs to improve to ensure further regression is avoided. Fielding a squad comprising of European-based campaigners, Southern audiences will be mostly unfamiliar with a French outfit missing the likes of Thomas Bosc, Remi Casty and Oliver Elima, while only three players in the 24-man squad have featured in more than 10 Tests for France. Including seven members of the Catalans Dragons Super League outfit, two of the players named have previously featured in the NRL, with fullback Mark Kheirallah and lock Jason Baitieri representing the Roosters in a single fixture during Brian Smith's tenure at the beginning of the decade.
Returning to the World Cup following a 16-year absence, Lebanon shape as an unknown quantity with their largely part-time squad interspersed with several well-established first-graders. Boasting the likes of Robbie Farah, Mitchell Moses and Tim Mannah, the biggest advantage for the Cedars lies in the appointment of Brad Fittler as coach. Capable of instilling a sense of culture within a playing group in a small amount of time, as evident by the performances of City in recent seasons, Fittler recognises what is required for his teams to flourish and will instigate a game plan conducive to the strengths of his players. Naming former Penrith flyer Travis Robinson on the flank alongside young Parramatta lower grader Anthony Layoun at fullback, the Cedars will be looking to balance out their line-up with the forward experience of back-row trio Chris Saab, Ahmad Ellaz and Nick Kassis, all of whom have featured prominently for Lebanon for a number of years.
Last meeting: Mediterranean Cup, 2004 - Lebanon 42 France 12
Who to watch: For audiences based in the Southern Hemisphere, the threat posed by the French is largely unknown. With a modicum of NRL experience throughout their ranks, the form of playmaker Theo Fages shapes as pivotal to the chances of the French in progressing beyond the group stage. Plying his trade with English heavyweight St. Helens, the 23-year-old has been a regular fixture in Super League since debuting back in 2013, but with the responsibility of guiding play, the pressure may prove to be the sink-or-swim test required to elevate Fages into the elite player needed for France to compete on the International stage.
Having spent the past two years of his time at the Wests Tigers under intense scrutiny, Robbie Farah went through 2017 with a degree of anonymity unseen for well over a decade. In the twilight of his career, the 33-year-old has achieved a tremendous amount and will be out to give back to the country that provided an opportunity 15 years ago that few could have envisioned the ensuing impact. Debuting for the Cedars as an 18-year-old, Farah returns to Lebanese jersey for the first time since 2002 eager to impart his experience upon a side predominantly made up of unknowns, while showing that his ability as a footballer remains untarnished by the needless tribulations of his departure from the Tigers.
My tip: While the French may boast a side with a greater number of Northern Hemisphere regular first graders, the quality of the few NRL stars in the Lebanese ranks should prove far too strong. In either case, the true meaning of the fixture will be evident in how the sides fare against Australia and England in coming weeks. Cedars by 16.
1. Mark Kheirallah 2. Fouad Yaha 3. Bastien Ader 4. Damien Cardace 5. Ilias Bergal 6. Theo Fages 7. William Barthau 8. Antoni Maria 9. Eloi Pelissier 10. Julian Bousquet 11. Benjamin Garcia 12. Benjamin Jullien 13. Jason Baitieri 14. Clement Boyer 15. Nabil Djalout 16. Thibault Margalet 17. Lucas Albert
1. Anthony Layoun 2. Travis Robinson 3. James Elias 4. Jason Wehbe 5. Abbas Miski 6. Mitchell Moses 7. Robbie Farah 8. Tim Mannah 17. Andrew Kazzi 14. Mitchell Mamary 16. Jaleel Seve-Derbas 12. Ahmad Ellaz 13. Nick Kassis 9. Michael Lichaa 10. Alex Twal 15. Elias Sukkar 18. Adam Doueihi