Michael Cheika will watch his first match in charge of Lebanon from Argentina after flight cancellations forced him to hand over the reins for Wednesday night’s clash with Malta to his coaching team of Matt King, Jake Friend, Robbie Farah and Michael Habib.
Cheika, the former Wallabies mentor, is also preparing Los Pumas for the July 2 rugby union international against Scotland and had been planning to return to Argentina after the Test at Belmore Sports Ground but he now has to fly out before kick-off.
“It is my first game, but I am not going to be there,” Cheika told NRL.com on Monday night after training and a team dinner.
“I was planning on being there and I had a flight booked for Thursday morning which would have got me to Argentina on Thursday evening, but the flight got cancelled.
“I had to shift onto another flight and the only one I could get was tomorrow. Fortunately, we have got Matty King and Jake Friend and Robbie Farah there, so there will be no shortage of footy IQ.
“I have known Kingy for ages through the Roosters and he is a solid campaigner so he will be right on the money.”
King, the former Storm and Rabbitohs star, is Trent Robinson’s longest serving assistant at Sydney Roosters, where Cheika enjoyed his first taste of rugby league coaching in 2020 in a code switch that convinced him to take on the Cedars job.
Friend was the Roosters co-captain and has now joined the club’s coaching staff after being forced into retirement last season, while Farah and Habib are former Lebanon internationals also now involved with coaching.
Farah, who first played for Lebanon at the 2000 World Cup and returned to captain the team at the 2017 tournament, is on the staff at Wests Tigers, while Habib has been involved in the Cedars’ pathways programs for several years.
With NRL stars Mitchell Moses, Adam Doueihi, Alex Twal, Josh Mansour and Jacob Kiraz not playing against the Jarrod Sammut-led Malta Knights, the Test will be an opportunity to assess some of the emerging talent available to Lebanon ahead of the end-of-season World Cup in England.
“We are really pleased with how it’s going, it’s good fun and it is different as well for me so I’m learning something different every day,” Cheika said.
“The way we have picked the team it will be a good even contest, which is how we want it. I really want to see what some of these lads have got.”
Despite not being at Belmore on Wednesday night, Cheika will be able to watch the match via the Watch NRL app after helping to organise for Kayo to stream the Test on the their Freebies platform.
“I think trying to get the game on tele and streamed was always going to be good just to make some noise about the team and so those who can’t get to Belmore can watch,” he said.
“What people will see is a bunch of guys that may not be household names but there are a fair few young blokes coming through the grades.
“You have got guys playing NSW Cup, Jersey Flegg, Sydney Shield, Ron Massey Cup and even SG Ball players who are coming through, so you have got all the NRL pathways showcased in one place.”
The teams will play for the Elias-Fenech Shield, named after former rivals and stars hookers Ben Elias and Mario Fenech, who were renowned as much for their passion as their great skills.
Elias, who played for Balmain, was born in Lebanon, while Fenech, who played for South Sydney, North Sydney and the South Queensland Crushers, has Maltese heritage.