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International minnows look to build upon promising World Cup campaigns
Clashing in the first of two Pacific tests on Saturday evening at Leichardt Oval, the Fiji Bati will take on the Lebanon Cedars in a contest featuring a number of recognised stars and future first graders.
Proving themselves to be one of the best performers in tournaments after finishing as semi finalists in the past three World Cups, Fiji have struggled to replicate that success during mid-year fixtures, managing just one win from five tests since 2014.
Fielding just seven members from the team beaten 26-14 against Papua New Guinea twelve months ago, rookie coach Brandon Costin has opted for a youthful 18-man squad featuring seven debutants, while benefitting from the inclusion of Viliame Kikau in his first appearance for the Bati since establishing himself as one of the most destructive ball runners in the NRL.
Among the new faces set to make their first appearances for the Bati, Fijian based halfback Penioni Tagituimua will make his debut after impressing for the Fiji Residents against the Tonga Residents in a three-match series earlier this month.
Facing off against Lebanon for the first time in five years with a squad boasting just three survivors, Fiji will be expected to prove too strong for the Cedars, however with Apisai Koroisau ruled out after sustaining an ankle strain over the weekend, the lack of quality playmakers may disrupt the potency of the side's attacking threats.
Taking part in their first test match since going down narrowly to Tonga, 24-22, in the quarter finals of the 2017 World Cup, Lebanon will be out to build upon the promise shown two years ago under new coach Rick Stone.
Tasked with the responsibility of leading the Cedars following Brad Fittler's appointment as New South Wales coach, Stone will be forced to make do without established stars Mitchell Moses and Josh Mansour, while benefitting from the experience of veterans Robbie Farah, Tim Mannah and Michael Lichaa.
Retaining eight players from the World Cup squad, including recent NRL debutant Abbas Miski, look for incumbent Australian Schoolboys prop Jalal Bazzaz to impress in his international debut following a series of impressive performances with the Dragons Jersey Flegg team.
In what likely looms as his final appearance for Lebanon at age 35, Robbie Farah will captain the Cedars for the sixth time after making his international debut as a teenager 17 years ago.
Last meeting: Hayne-Mannah Cup 2014 - Fiji 40 Lebanon 28
Who to watch: Set to make his international debut on Saturday night at age 20, Bulldogs lower-grade halfback Brandon Wakeham will be eager to make a statement in the biggest match of his young career. Spending time in Canterbury Cup at halfback and off the bench in recent weeks after recovering from an ankle injury sustained during the pre-season, the young playmaker will be tasked with a role the Fijians have struggled with over the years given the nation's preference for electrifying outside backs and intimidating forwards. Partnered alongside former South Sydney one-gamer Sitiveni Moceidreke, look for Wakeham to give a strong account of himself in the hopes of forging a prosperous career at international level, along with pressing his claims for an NRL debut in the near future.
Relegated to reserve grade over the past two months having fallen out of favour with Canterbury coach Dean Pay, Lebanon hooker Michael Lichaa will be out to use Saturday's test as a springboard to revive his fledgling career. Off-contract at season's end and unlikely to remain at Belmore, the 25-year-old will have the opportunity to showcase his skills in his preferred position, while drawing upon his experience as one of just five players in the Cedars squad to have featured in the NRL. Capable of causing plenty of damage with his running game, look for Lichaa to play a prominent role as Lebanon strive to record their first win over the Bati since 2013.
The favourite: Boasting a team containing a plethora of regular first graders, including some of the most prolific try-scorers in the league, the Bati are expected to overpower the Cedars with their attacking potential.
My tip: While the experience of Robbie Farah and Tim Mannah will provide Lebanon with a solid base to work from on Saturday night, the speed and power of Fiji should result in a high-scoring win for the Pacific nation. Fiji by 20.
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. Taane Milne 13. Jayson Bukuya 14. D’Rhys Miller 15. Salesi Fainga'a 16. Junior Roqica 17. Penioni Tagituimua
1. Anthony Layoun 2. Jayden El-Jalkh 3. Bilal Maarbani 4. Allan Lockwood 5. Abbas Miskie 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
Referees: Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials: Todd Smith, Rickey McFarlane; Video Referees: Henry Perenara, Beau Scott;