Joanna Lester, NRL.com
While Italy celebrate securing the final place in the 2013 World Cup, Lebanon, Russia and Serbia are left with four years of hard work before their next crack at the big stage – qualifying for the 2017 World Cup, beginning in 2015.
Lebanon’s heart-breaking 19-all draw with Italy reflects just how close the Cedars were to the Azzurri throughout the tournament, and not reaching the World Cup is a bitter blow for a country whose growing domestic rugby league scene offers massive potential.
The Cedars also missed out on qualification for the 2008 World Cup on points difference, and Saturday’s result saw tears of despair among the long-serving Lebanon players who have failed to reach the last two tournaments.
Sydney-based Adnan El Zabedieh, who played alongside his brother Adham in this year’s qualifiers, summed up the mood in the Cedars camp.
“It was pretty devastating for the team but a few bad decisions didn't go our way and it just cost us in the end. It's the second world cup in a row that we've missed out like that, and words can't explain how I feel. Hopefully it will be third time lucky for the next one.”
Lebanon now faces the challenge of maintaining its domestic rugby league development without the selling point of a World Cup berth.
The Lebanese government has pledged to double its funding for rugby league, and the sport’s authorities there say the publicity generated by the qualifying campaign has seen them receive 500 emails a day expressing interest in and support for league in the country.
Continuing this momentum will be far harder without World Cup involvement, which would have significantly raised the sport’s profile among local and Middle East-wide media. But with a number of new faces from both Lebanon and Australia in this year’s squad, there will be plenty of Cedars youngsters raring to go again in 2015.
Serbia had been looking for their first ever win against Russia to end the qualifying tournament on a high after big defeats by Lebanon and Italy. The hosts mounted a late fightback from 12-30 down to trail 28-30, but fumbled two match-winning chances and were made to pay when a late Russia try secured a 36-28 victory for the Bears.
Throughout the tournament Serbia have fielded a team of almost entirely domestic-based players, led superbly by Canberra-based youngster Adam Nedic, and boosted by former Manly Sea Eagles junior Ilija Radan, now plying his trade with Hemel Hempstead in the south of England.
Despite three losses in the tournament, Radan believes the experience will improve his side’s confidence in future internationals.
“It’ll help them out because the calibre of players we’ve faced in this tournament has been impeccable – the likes of Anthony Minichiello, Vic Mauro and some of the Lebanon players who have played at a high level in Australia,” Radan explained.
“I think the experience will improve our boys’ skill levels, and it has prepared the Serbian side for future internationals against higher level opposition.”
Serbian rugby league authorities were satisfied to have hosted two close games in Belgrade in front of a vocal crowd of 500, with all ticket profits donated to a sports-wide charity appeal to help premature baby care.
Russian coaching advisor John Stankevitch was delighted with the Bears’ win, which provided a much-needed confidence boost for his side after conceding 124 points in their previous two games.
“We learnt some lessons from the last two defeats, and to get the final win was a massive positive. You could see how much it meant to the players with the celebrations at the end,” he said.
Stankevitch, who joined Russia last month to assist with the qualifying tournament, admits preparing his team to compete at this level has been a huge challenge.
“It’s been a massive eye-opener. We’ve been training in the middle of a forest using posts that are brown with rust. Sometimes we’ve had 17 players at training but other times there have only been nine. It’s good to get any sort of game plan in place, but we’ve mostly been concentrating on building a bit of a team spirit and the basic skills. It’s been really difficult.”
After a turbulent few years in Russian rugby league, the Bears will be hoping to present a far stronger challenge ahead of the 2017 World Cup, with four more years’ experience in the bag and the continued assistance of coaching and technical advisors from the UK.