Sport Rugby League Rugby League World Cup: The team trying to change Australia’s perceptions

Rugby League World Cup: The team trying to change Australia’s perceptions

bilal maarbani
Bilal Maarbani has set his sights on the NRL. Photo: Getty
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“We just block out all that stuff that happens in the media because none of its really true. We try and set a good example, we try and show the public what we really are and not what you see on TV.”

Playing for Lebanon, the country of his heritage, is about more than just rugby league for Bilal Maarbani.

The 18-year-old outside back is chasing his dream of breaking into in the NRL. Born in Bankstown and raised in Sydney’s west, he always had a Steeden in his hands growing up.

The stocky fullback came through the Canterbury Bulldogs junior ranks but with his first-grade opportunities at the Dogs limited, he joined the Manly Sea Eagles at the start of this year.

It has proved to be a life-changing move, with Marbaani scoring a spectacular try in Manly’s come-from-behind Under-20s grand final victory over Parramatta.

“At first I was part of the Dogs but I never got a chance there,” he told The New Daily. “I got the opportunity to go to Manly and I went there straight away. Wayne Lambkin my coach, he took care of me straight away and he’s helped me a lot.”

That starring role for the Sea Eagles and persistent hard work catapulted him into the Rugby League World Cup and selection for Lebanon. On Saturday he made his Test debut in the Cedars’ 29-10 defeat to England at the Sydney Football Stadium.

Lebanon might have lost to one of the World Cup favourites but the team ranked 18th in the world, the lowest ranking in this tournament and made up mostly of part-timers, earned massive respect with their gritty and determined display.

Marbaani is relishing the experience playing for the Middle Eastern minnows.

“Everyone in my family was born in Lebanon except for my mother. All my grandparents and my dad, so it means a lot to me to be playing for Lebanon. You’re representing everyone pretty much because we’re all cousins, we’re all close.”

Most of the Lebanese squad were born and raised in Australia, and are the sons and grandsons of Lebanese immigrants. Along with doing their family proud, these players have another motive in wanting to show the positive side of Lebanese-Australia.

Lebanon fans wave flag
Lebanese supporters have been out in force during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Photo: Getty

In the past Australia’s Lebanese community has often been maligned or unfairly tarred with the wrong brush – viewed as either terrorists, criminals or gangsters, you name it. But this squad, which has already pulled off one of the upsets of the Rugby League World Cup after beating France, wants to change people’s minds.

Made up of both Muslims and Christians, they are a united force and have been warmly supported by thousands of fans. Their training session in Belmore last week brought together men, women and children in a party-like atmosphere all eager to meet their heroes.

“It’s just like our logo – united as one,” the man nicknamed ‘Billy’ says.

“You get one idiot who wrecks the whole reputation for all of us and it just puts us all down. We’re not what they all say we are. We’re great people. We care about each other, we love each other, we’re all family.”

For Maarbani it has been a hard slog to get to this position and be just over a week away from a World Cup quarter-final. The apprentice electrician combines work with footy, often working six days a week, with a usual day starting at 6am and finishing after 8pm when training ends.

“It’s pretty full-on but I love footy so there’s no way I’d say no to it,” he says. “You have to sacrifice a bit to get what you want in life. I’m very fortunate to be part of the Lebanon squad so it was all worth it in the end.”

Lebanon’s dream run in the tournament is set to continue with a spot in the quarter-finals, regardless of how they fare against the Kangaroos. Along the way they are helping to alter negative stereotypes about their community.

With one dream already realised, Maarbani will keep working hard to make sure another target is reached.

“Hopefully we’ll get to the quarter-finals, hopefully France don’t beat England and we go through and play New Zealand,” he says. “It’s every player’s dream to be an NRL player one day. Hopefully I get the opportunity just to play one first-grade game. It would be a dream come true.”

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