By BRAD GREENSHIELDS
DESPITE holding the mantle of reigning title holders, Lebanon went into yesterday's final of the Orara Valley Axemen's sevens tournament as underdogs in the eyes of experts and spectators alike.
All weekend Fiji Bati had played attractive football that left fans breathless with awe and opponents eating dust.
But given a hard final after two days of non-stop football when things really start to get tough and participants are asked to dig deep, it was the pure grit of the Lebanese team that got them over the line 24-22 in a thriller.
Cedars coach Darren Maroon knew there was one main ingredient that got his team the winners trophy and he was left inspired by the character of his young team.
"They've got very big hearts these boys," Maroon said in admiration.
"I think it's their will to do what they have to do, there's some good will there, Samer El Masri played with a torn cartilage from yesterday.
"They're a very tight knit group, they've got a will together and they sit together, they're like brothers and it showed in the end."
In the second half of the final, Lebanon were leading 24-12 under the warm summer sun but had to show courage to muscle up when the Bati threw one last challenge at them.
With a minute to go the island nation got to within two points but ran out of time as they tried to overhaul their tiring opponents.
Maroon admitted to a few heart palpitations in the final moments of the match but he always had faith that his boys would get the money in the end.
"I think a lot of the time everyone knocks up in footy," he said.
"It's what you do when you're tired that makes the difference and these boys just had the bigger desire I felt.
"If you know anyone in senior management for the NRL or anything, get them down to come watch some good young players.
"If they're interested in bolstering the strength of their club, these blokes should be there."
The disappointment on the faces of the Fijians could not disguised having come so close.
Speed merchants Max Bainivalu and Marika Koronui both claimed try scoring doubles but it wasn't quite enough to claim first prize.
"The boys seemed to be very tired so they tended to switch off in their mentality but I really praise the boys for fighting for their country," manager Rusi Ratakele said.
"We can get Lebanon next year, we'll now look at our DVD and work on our weaknesses. The main one we found was where the players tend to lose communication in defence."
The Lebanese celebrated with gusto when the final whistle was blown and their coach feels it's because the team's not only tight knit but because the achievement of winning was even bigger this time around.
"It was a lot harder this year, the competition was a much better competition as far as the calibre of player was concerned and the way it was run was enormous," Maroon explained.
"It's really hard to explain how I feel right now but their performance this year superseded last year by 10 lengths for the mere reason that the pressure that was on this young team because our best players didn't come to be honest but now we've got a double strength side."
LEBANON 24 (John Geaves 2, Toufic Nicholas, Fred Kloviss, Jason Stanton, Trent Tumo tries) d FIJI BATI 22 (Max Bainivalu 2, Marika Koronui 2, Ioware Divavesi tries; Divavesi goal).