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The picturesque Orara Valley Axemen?s home ground in Coramba, New South Wales was the scene of an epic 2006 Orara Valley Sevens Final yesterday between defending champions, Lebanon, and the desperately unlucky Fiji Batis.
In what was a pulsating encounter of high quality rugby league, Lebanon scored 6 tries (all unconverted) to 5, to win narrowly 24-22. The match ended with a gallant Fiji side, minus injured captain Semesa Cadrakiliagi, attacking relentlessly with magnificent, open rugby league (as they had played all tournament) and Lebanon frustrating each successive wave of attack with superb scrambling defence.
In earlier matches, Lebanon had disposed of Fiji A, Guyra, Leichhardt Wonderers, Tigers, Moore Park (controversially) and tournament surprise packets, Malta. Fiji Batis had lost their opening game to Hoey Moey before warming to their form in successive winning matches against Renown, Sawtell, North Ryde Hawks, Gold Coast Titans ? in advance of their debut entry into the NRL competition in 2007 ? and the talented Auburn Warriors.
Lebanon?s semi-final with Malta was delayed for approximately 20 minutes with Moore Park formally submitting a protest over their losing result against Lebanon (28-18) in an earlier quarterfinal. The protest, involving former NRL player Wes Patten, seemed to focus on a disallowed Moore Park try at a crucial stage. Hollywood royalty was called in to deal with the dispute with Russell Crowe intervening to ensure the tournament continued without a change of semi-final combatants.
The tension before the Final reached a crescendo with the intimidation of the Fijian war dance concluding literally in the faces of the Lebanese players, who reacted with calm indifference as they stood linked arm-in-arm on the halfway line. Fiji?s attitude to proceedings was demonstrated with a chip ahead on the second tackle after Lebanon?s kick-off and they duly took the lead with Marika Korovue crossing for a try after concerted pressure.
Lebanon showed good speed with Johnny Geaves scoring yet another in a tournament full of tries for him, to level up the match at 4-4. Fiji?s glorious instinct to move the ball at every occasion saw a 60m penetration involving 6 players nearly bring off another try before Lebanon took the lead for the first time at 8-4 with a try in the corner to Fred Khouiss. Fiji were not assisted by the absence of a key player after NRL referee Shane Hayne dispatched Semisi Tora to the sinbin for a crucial 3 minute stint.
Perhaps the turning point in this match (and the tournament) was Cadrakiliagi throwing an intercept and then injuring his knee in quickly rounding up the Lebanese recipient Samer El Masri. The Fijian captain played no further part in the Final ? a factor that may have proved costly judging by his fine early form throughout the tournament. Shortly after, a visibly shaken Fiji, conceded the second of a brace of tries to that man Geaves, resulting in a 12-4 lead to Lebanon. Fortunately for Fiji, the kicking at goal by Lebanon (failing to register a conversion from 6 attempts) was abysmal. Tournament rules prescribed that the try scorer must take a drop-kick attempt at conversion resulting in some interesting interpretations of this difficult art from patently uncomfortable kickers.
Lebanon then showed good flair to make heavy inroads into Fijian territory before scoring an intelligent try from a kick to Toufic Nicholas. Fiji, sensing their opportunity slipping, ceaselessly attacked the Lebanese defensive line, resulting in the talented Max Bainivalu responding with a try after Meli Vosuqa and Tora had combined superbly. At halftime ? the Final was comprised of two 12-minute halves - Lebanon stood tall at 16-8.
Lebanon started the second half in a flurry with standout player Jason Stanton finishing off clever attacking work from four other players to help the Cedars pull away to a nearly insurmountable 20-8 lead. Clever work by Korovue sent Ioware Divavesi in for an immediate Fijian response with a converted try under the posts, narrowing the gap to just 6 points.
A massive tackle by giant Fijian Neori Kurumalawai momentarily halted Lebanon?s momentum before Travis Touma regained it for the defending champions with a try to make the score 24-14.
It was at this point that Fiji really threw off the shackles to enthral the crowd with high pace, sevens rugby league. Quick tries to both Korovue and then Bainivalu, helping each to register two for the match, saw Fiji close the gap to 24-22. Bainivalu, in particular, and Tora proved a menace out wide with Fiji striving to keep the ball alive at every juncture with flowing football. Only desperate Lebanon defence, with Mo Chahal especially prominent, saw the final grasping tackle effected on a Fijian attacker before the hooter blasted out its final note.
Lebanon?s jubilation at successive tournament victories was all the more vivid when contrasted with the abject disappointment of the Fijians, a fact that made the post-game embraces between the rival players all the more noteworthy. This reflected what was a spirited but sportsmanlike tournament throughout.
Best players for Lebanon were Chahal, Stanton and Ahmad El Masri and for Fiji Bainivalu, Tora and Vosuqa.
Overall the tournament was a great success with three of the final four places being contested by international sides (nine competed). Malta was officially awarded third place for an all-international top three. The promoters of the tournament could do worse then invite even more international sides next year, although the contribution of country teams in particular was also exceptional.
If the World Sevens is not to be revived by the Australian Rugby League in the near future, this tournament itself could be an avenue for much needed international development as Fiji, Lebanon and Malta have demonstrated rugby league has such great potential for.