BHAMDOUN, Lebanon (Reuters) - Chunky young men face off in the cool autumn sunshine of a mountain town in Lebanon, a country gripped by political instability and fears of violence.
There are brief sprints forward, crunching collisions and ferocious yells of “take him out, pull him down.”
The aggression is real, but harmless — these are not trainee militiamen practicing hand-to-hand combat but students tasting the robust joys of rugby, a relatively unknown sport in Lebanon.
Danny Kazandjian, a Londoner, has spent the last five years trying to change that, with a mandate from the Rugby League International Federation to introduce the game to Lebanon.
The tiny Middle Eastern nation competed in the 2000 World Cup but all its players were Australians of Lebanese origin.
They still dominate the national squad, which this month narrowly failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup despite beating Wales in a thriller. But local players are coming up.
“It was a new experience for me, playing on a very high level,” said Robin Khushash, one of three Lebanese-based players picked for the squad and the only one to play in the qualifiers.
The 25-year-old prop forward discovered rugby league two years ago when he was home on vacation from studying in Russia and watched his brother playing for a university team.
“I liked everything about it, the physicality, the speed, the fitness you need to play,” he said before taking to the field in Bhamdoun, where an American University of Beirut side were taking on their Lebanese American University rivals.
Kazandjian, who donned a yellow referee’s shirt for the game, has nurtured the nucleus of a future rugby league federation from half a dozen clubs at top Lebanese universities.
These can provide pitches and facilities. Student turnover means many youngsters get acquainted with the sport. The downside is that many leave for jobs abroad when they graduate, despairing of Lebanon’s political and economic frailties.
When he first came to Lebanon, Kazandjian was told that no Lebanese would want to play such a rough game.
“But it became clear very quickly that they were suited to the sport — the physical nature of their bodies, squat and powerful. They’ve taken to it like ducks to water,” he said, adding that rugby provided an outlet for pent-up aggression.
“Some of them couldn’t believe their luck when they started playing. They used to ask — you mean this is allowed?”
Munir Finan, a burly prop, relishes the contact element in a sport that has won a small but passionate following here. “The guys are happy, we all talk rugby and we are very enthusiastic.”
Lebanese clubs have contested domestic championships every year since 2002, although last season’s could not be completed because of battles that erupted in May between the army and Islamist gunmen at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.
Soccer remains easily Lebanon’s most popular sport but many of its top clubs have sectarian or political affiliations — a feature rugby league’s promoters have been determined to avoid.
“The Lebanese players all understand that they have built all this up by themselves and the quickest way to ruin it is by allowing sectarianism to enter the sport,” Kazandjian said.
Rugby, he argues, instills socially useful values such as teamwork and discipline, which could be positive for Lebanon.
Unfortunately, the sport cannot offer the fragmented country an example of unity. A worldwide split between 15-a-side rugby union and the 13-a-side league version is also reflected here, despite Lebanon’s tiny pool of no more than 300 regular players.
But the president of the Lebanese rugby union variant, Ghassan Hajjar, 39, is also eager to tout the “sportsmanship, courage, friendship and passion” inherent in the oval-ball game.
“All those things in Lebanon that separate people, or make them hate each other, fade away when they are on the pitch.”
Lebanese rugby union teams will take part in the Dubai Sevens tournament, starting on Thursday, as they have for several years. They also compete in a new league with Syria and Jordan.
Rugby union has a longer pedigree than the league version in Lebanon, arriving 12 years ago when two emigre brothers formed the Beirut Phoenicians club after their return from England.
Kazandjian, given a remit in May by the European Rugby League Federation to develop the sport in the Middle East and North Africa, is convinced rugby league can make rapid strides.
“Hopefully we’ve done our bit to change people’s perceptions of Lebanon,” he said. “The chance we’ve given these young men to do something positive has been an enormous fillip to them.”
Editing by Clare Fallon