Lebanese Rugby League has been slowly growing ever since its inauguration back in 1998. From an idea inspired by Lebanese Australians in New South Wales, Australia, the game has grown so much in the Asian country that Lebanon now has its own league competition with rugby league thriving in schools and universities. Amazingly, the Cedars - a nickname named after the Lebanese Cedar tree which is also on the nation's flag - qualified for the 2000 World Cup after beating the USA, though failed to get out of the group stages. Two failed World Cup qualifying campaigns (2008 and 2013) later, and Lebanon is in their second World Cup Finals following a playoff victory over South Africa.

Taken seriously

Before the World Cup had begun, Lebanon was given odds of 750/1 by Super League sponsors Betfred to win the World Cup. Even now, they are still priced at 100/1 to win Group A. These are perhaps good odds when considering that Australia and England make up two of the other three competitors. Yet, France, even after their 29-18 loss to the Cedars last weekend, are still rated as a better shot at 66/1.

Why? Lebanon outclassed the French across the park and, despite the closeness of the game and final result, deserved to win. The Lebanese victory shocked the rugby league fraternity, but, when analysing the team, the setup in Lebanon, and the spirit emanating throughout the camp, it was perhaps no shock at all.

History and growth of Lebanese Rugby League

Within Sydney, there is an approximately 200,000-strong Lebanese community, most of whom are ardent rugby league followers.

In 1998, two from this community, brothers George and John Elias decided to form a team to play in the Sydney 7s. From this, a full Lebanese team was created with a view to entering the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.

They were accepted into the qualifying tournament, but only on the grounds that they would develop rugby league within the country itself.

Remarkably, the two-year-old team subsequently went on to win the qualifying competition, earning their place at the World Cup by beating Italy and Morocco of the Mediterranean group before the Cedars travelled to Florida to defeat the Pacific group winners, the USA.

Despite exiting the 2000 World Cup at the group stages, the Lebanon team - made up of Australian-born players with Lebanese heritage - had won the hearts and minds of the Lebanese nation with a draw against the Cook Islands and a narrow 24-22 defeat to Wales.

Taking note of this admiration, a journalist by the name of Danny Kazandjian created plans to introduce rugby league into universities and schools in Lebanon's main cities such as Tripoli and Beirut.

While sports in Lebanon are divided upon sectarian and political lines, Kazandjian purposely aimed at bringing rugby league to universities because of their apolitical stance. Effectively, rugby league was aimed at including everyone. It has done just that; Muslims and Christians play in the same teams unlike any other sport in the country.

Federation status

And, the sport has blossomed in Lebanon ever since 2000; the Lebanese Rugby League Committee, formed in 2003, was eventually given full federation status in December 2009, and now around 1,000 players are registered to play with the Lebanese governing body. With federation status, Lebanon also became a member of the Rugby League European Federation - despite its Asian locality - as well as the Rugby League International Federation.

Now, Lebanon's main league features five championship clubs, while 12 universities and 10 schools all sport a rugby league team. Every sport needs a pathway for youngsters, and Lebanon is slowly making strides in this department with an under-21s, under-18s and an under-16s side. And, in this present age with the huge expanse of the women's game, Lebanon has again followed suit; just this year a Lebanese women's side played an international game against Italy. Even more impressively, a women's league is planned for 2018.

Strides on the field

Lebanon's acclaimed development off the field in such a short space of time is nothing short of miraculous. But, their progress on the pitch itself has been a joy to witness also; the Lebanese-Australian community has produced a number of stars with the likes of Hazem El Mazri - the highest points-scorer in NRL history when he retired in 2009 - and current captain Robbie Farah both gracing the NRL.

While nearly all of Lebanon's players over the years have been Australian-born and raised, practically all make regular trips to the home country of their parents and grandparents to help develop the sport with each player seemingly possessing a deep affinity with the Lebanese nation. Furthermore, the Lebanese community in Australia shares a bond that is closely-knit - they live and eat together and have not lost touch with their identity. It is this passion that is shared by the players and fans alike, regardless of their Australian birth, evidence of which could be found in Lebanon's historic opening win against France last weekend.

Future growth

The challenge for Lebanon will be to eventually raise a team born-and-bred in the nation itself.

This year's 24-man World Cup squad features only one home-grown player - Raymond Sabat, of Beirut team, Lycans RL.

However, four other Lebanon born and raised players - Ali Abou Arabi, Imad Chidiac, Toufic El Hage, and Wael Harb - are currently with the World Cup squad to gain valuable experience. A group of Lebanese coaches and match officials have also taken the opportunity provided by the World Cup to travel to Australia - courtesy of the Australian government - for a series of training courses.

The seeds seem to have been well and truly planted for Lebanese rugby league.

So what of Lebanon's current chances?

The Cedars head into tomorrow's fixture against England buoyed by their success over the French, but England is an entirely different proposition. The majority of the Lebanon squad are part-time and, despite boasting some NRL stars in their ranks - No.9 Robbie Farah, half-back Mitchell Moses (whose performance last weekend earned him considerable plaudits), and prop Tim Mannah - Lebanon should be no match for an England side determined to get over their opening defeat at the hands of Australia.

The Cedars' victory over France should, however, be enough to see them through to the quarter-finals, with New Zealand or Tonga - two of the favourites - likely to be their knock-out opponents. But, even if Lebanon is cast aside by these two giants, it would still be a remarkable achievement for a nation who, just 20 years ago, had no rugby league team or setup at all.