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Lebanon went mighty close to one of the biggest upsets in Rugby League World Cup history, going down to last week's giant killers Tonga by 24-22 in a classic Quarter Final at AMI Stadium in Christchurch this afternoon.
The Cedars, made up mostly of part time lower grade players from Sydney, gave the Tongans an almighty scare, with the Brad Fittler coached side having three tries disallowed during the match, in a dogged performance by one of the tournament's remaining minnows.
Led by an electric performance by Eels half Mitchell Moses, the Cedars refused to yield, fighting back several times throughout the game, despite being outmuscled by the huge Tongan pack in the middle of the field and despite being low on NRL experience in comparison to their opposition.
The Tongans came into the match red hot favourites after last week's historic win over New Zealand, but they found out that a week can be a long time in Rugby League when they managed to just hold onto a two point lead to secure a spot in next week's Semi Final against the winner of England vs. Papua New Guinea.
With Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita dominating the middle of the field, the Tongans looked well and truly on track early, when the Tongans laid on their first try after just three minutes. Gold Coast Titans centre Konrad Hurrell and David Fusitu'a combined down the right hand side, with Fusitu'a finding Tui Lolohea backing up to score under the posts, allowing the men in Red a near perfect start.
Lebanon hit back however, when their experienced NRL halves combination in Robbie Farah and Mitchell Moses combined to put centre Adam Doueihi in some space to score in a great response from the unfancied Cedars.
The Tongans superstar forwards then took control of the match with both Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita charging through the Lebanese defence, which saw quick tries to Warriors winger David Fusitu'a and then Bulldogs fullback Will Hopoate and Tonga were out to a 16-6 lead after 23 minutes.
Playing in their first ever World Cup Quarter Final, the Cedars refused to surrender, when Moses was rushed by the Tongan defence on the last and sliced through, the Eels half then kicked inside which deflected off Jason Taumalolo and sat up in the in goal for James Elias to pounce on the loose ball to score.
Tonga hit back immediately however, with their big pack strolling up field and then Ata Hingano put in a pin point kick for David Fusitu'a who leapt high for the talented winger to bag a double and extend the lead to 22-12 with six minutes remaining in the first half.
The Cedars again however just refused to go away, when on the stroke of halftime they kept the ball alive on the 4th tackle and fullback Anthony Layoun placed a kick in goal which sat up for his winger Abbas Miiski who managed to get the ball down inches from the dead ball line cutting the Tongan lead to 22-16 at halftime.
After the break most pundits expected the Tongans to kick away give their dominance in metres gained by their giant forward pack, however it was Lebanon who looked to have taken the lead when centre Adam Doueihi steamed onto a superb inside ball from Mitchell Moses to reach out and score. However the Video Referee ruled that interchange forward Ray Moujalli had interfered with a Tongan defender in the lead up in what could have been described as a fifty-fifty call which had Cedars skipper Robbie Farah furious.
Tonga continued to make inroads up the middle and the smaller Lebanese forward pack was then penalised for trying to hold down Jason Taumalolo, which allowed Ata Hingano to extend their lead to 24-16 with less than half an hour remaining.
The Cedars continued to chance their arm, offloading at will and producing some superb support play for the experienced stars in Moses and Farah which really tested the Tongan defence on multiple occasions. Moses then yet again proved a handful, breaking the line but in looking for support and in heartbreaking circumstances for the Lebanese fans, he was tackled inches away from the try line.
The Red wall finally cracked however with 12 minutes remaining when through some enterprising support play, Mitchell Moses created some space for winger Abbas Minski to score in the corner. Moses converted to narrow the gap to 2 points and the Tongan side became very nervous.
Lebanon then had a final chance to take the lead when Tongan five-eighth Tui Lolohea put the ball out on the full late in the game and despite the Cedars continuing to chance their arm it just was not to be, with the Tongans holding on to win 24-22 in an absolute thriller.
Lebanon exit the Rugby League World Cup with their heads held high after reaching their first finals appearance in the country's history and with coach Brad Fittler's chances of securing the NSW coaching role in 2018 only enhanced with such a tremendous performance with a side predominantly made up of part time professionals.
Tonga 24 - Lebanon 22
Venue: AMI Stadium
Halftime Score: Tonga 22 Lebanon 16
LeagueUnlimited.com Players of the Match:
3 points - Mitchell Moses
2 points - Jason Taumalolo
1 points - David Fusitua
Tries: Tuimoala Lolohea, David Fusitua (2), William Hopoate
Conversions: Ata Hingano (3/4)
Penalty Goals: Ata Hingano (1/1)
Tries: Adam Doueihi, James Elias, Abbas Miski (2)
Conversions: Mitchell Moses (3/4)