There were tears aplenty and high emotions on both sides in Belgrade as Italy became the 14th and final nation to qualify for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup for the first time in their history.
The Azzurri secured a place in Group C of the main tournament on points’ difference thanks to a 78th minute drop goal from scrum half Ryan Ghietti, given by referee Thierry Alibert, which secured a 19-19 draw with luckless Lebanon.
The Cedars had fought back from an 18-0 half time deficit and looked set to have prized victory when Nadim Couri’s one-pointer edged them in front with only four minutes remaining. However, from the restart, Lebanon fumbled possession and in the resulting set, Northern Pride’s Ghietti struck to devastating effect.
The difference for qualification ultimately came down to Lebanon not scoring enough points in the second half of their match in Russia the week before when, having built up a 26 point lead, they were restricted to only one other score in the second period while Italy’s bigger win over Serbia saw them go into the crunch clash with an eight point advantage.
The outcome left Italian coach Carlo Napolitano in a state of shock. “My overwhelming feeling is one of joy and relief,” he said. “When Lebanon slotted their drop goal over to lead I slumped into my chair, it was a surreal moment, I thought it was 1999 again when we lost to the Cedars in a World Cup qualifier.”
“I called for a short kick off and we managed to get the ball back and equalise, I can hardly believe it,” he added “We lost Ranieri and Ciraldo in the first half with shoulder and rib injuries and, full credit to Lebanon, they attacked us and knew we couldn’t get relief from bench.”
“In terms what the result means to rugby league in Italy, its hard gauge moment. I hope the public support us and numbers get down to the clubs in the country to grow the sport over the next important two years.”
A first minute altercation in front of a vibrant Serbian crowd set the tone for a physical encounter but poor discipline by Lebanon – including dissent - proved to be their initial undoing, losing the penalty count 7-2 in the first half, and 11-6 overall, when they conceded three converted tries.
By the end of the first quarter, prop Alex Ranieri and back rower Cameron Ciraldo had been forced from the field but when the Cedars failed to diffuse a steepling bomb and conceded a second set of six near their own line, Italian loose forward Ben Falcone latched on to a fine offload to open the scoring, Josh Mantellato goaling.
On the half hour, Lebanon looked as though they would level but a knock on ruined a long Nick Kassis break and almost immediately Italy struck for their second score, Ben Stewart crossing and Mantellato adding the extras.
The impressive Wyong winger, who has had a terrific qualifying tournament, then went over five minutes from the break on the end of a flowing passing move, the decisive last, long ball coming from skipper Anthony Minichiello; Mantellato landing the conversion to take his points tally to ten.
Lebanon, revived by coach David Baysarri’s exhortations during the interval, came out with renewed intent at the start of the second period, a long Ray Moujali break in the 42nd minute again ending in squandered possession.
Soon after, another Kassis bust set the position Adnan El Zabedieh to go over, Couri goaling and momentum began to shift. It was transformed with two tries in as many minutes in the lead up to the hour as first Moujali powered over and, with the Cedars making ground with every set, a kick on the last tackle took a fortunate bounce and James Boustani was on hand to take a scoring offload, Couri adding his third successful conversion to level.
The final, increasingly tense and dramatic quarter looked to be heading for stalemate as the Italian defence tightened, Couri missing a drop goal attempt with eight minutes to go. He landed his next effort but then, with the short kick off spilt, Ghietti stepped up to be the hero.
It was Lebanon’s third draw, after two against Ireland in the lead up to the 2008 World Cup, and again it ultimately cost them qualification.
Tries: Ben Falcone, Ben Stewart, Josh Mantellato
Goals: Josh Mantellato 3 from 3
Field Goals: Ryan Ghietti 1
Team: Anthony Minichiello, Josh Mantellato, Dom Nasso, Matt Parrata, Christophe Calegari, Ben Stewart, Ryan Ghietti, Alex Ranieri, Ray Nasso, Vic Mauro, Cameron Ciraldo, Joel Riethmuller, Ben Falcone; Subs: Dean Vicelich, Rob Quitadamo, Ryan Tramonte, Rhys Lenarduzzi
Tries: Adnan El Zabedieh, Ray Moujali, James Boustani
Goals: Nadim Couri 3 from 3
Field Goals: Nadim Couri 1
Team: Adnan Saleh, Adnan El Zabedieh, Danny Barakat, Adham Elzabedieh, Clifton Nye, James Boustani, Nadim Couri, Charlie Farah, Jamie Clark, Khaled Deeb, Ahmed Ellaz, Steve Azzi, Ray Moujali; Subs: Chris Saab, Nick Kassis, Allen Soultan, Robin Hachache