"I arrived in Beirut on 14th October, late in the evening after being delayed an hour which meant I was going to be late for my first training session. I was immediately struck by the humidity as I stepped through the doors of the terminal into Lebanon. Beirut is a city different to most other places I had been and on the journey to that first session I learned what a hilly city it was, my ears popped as we climbed the mountain up to a school astroturf field where the boys train, I hadn't really appreciated that.
"Lebanon is a great paradox in so many ways; one is that you can swim in the crystal clear Mediterranean Sea on the same day as skiing in the mountains at certain times of the year. I also learnt how crazy the driving was - there was no lane discipline and the drivers manage to cram four cars in the width of the two lanes - it was a new experience but my liaison Ray, the LRLF's Chief Operating Officer, certainly seemed at home with the driving madness. The numerous taxis, all rugged old Mercedes, pick up as many people as humanly fit in the car - eight is fine and buses stop wherever they want pulling across three lanes to get to the side of the highway for a fare.
"Meeting the team and the subsequent training sessions had some challenges in themselves - not least learning the names, including the three Mohammed's and the identical twins within the team. The frequent if not lengthy power cuts often add a twist too. The boys have come together as the week has gone on but they certainly haven't given me an easy ride. The Lebanese are passionate people and speak accordingly; when they speak in Arabic it is very difficult to see whether they are arguing or agreeing over something. This comes across in sessions as they are prepared to challenge each other and want absolute clarity on why we are doing things in a certain way. It certainly keeps you on your toes whilst you are coaching. The main aim has been to channel the passion and ability into some structure in offence and defence, as I was introducing a new game-plan to the side, so that the boys have some cohesion. This has improved over the week and we are getting to where we need to be in time for the games coming up.
"My link, Ray, has a massive amount of work to cover running the programmes through schools, coach education, universities, clubs and all the way up to national squad. He's just moved up to his new position so has to train up his successor, Faysal, the LRLF's Director of Development, as well. I imagine it is very similar to when rugby league was kicking off in London with the trailblazers finding themselves with all manner of roles in order to develop the game.
"On my travels with Ray, we have been required to have meetings with teachers, university tutors, a mayor, a stadium manager, and a bank sponsor. One of the bizarre aspects of the culture is the fact that there is often a random person in the room of the meeting who is nothing to do with it, merely someone who knows the person you are meeting with and these people tend to come and go as they please.
"I also witnessed a training session of the Lebanon Under-16s side and met a group of kids from one of the Palestinian camps in Beirut who play rugby league and was introduced to their Palestinian rugby league coaches! What makes the job even more difficult for Ray and his staff and volunteers are the stumbling blocks, red tape and challenges which are presented in a country with such diverse religious and political opinion. Lebanon has about 15 official religions, around which a political balance of power prevails. There is a daily reminder of this with all the military check-points that remain along the highways and are often found downtown in Beirut too. It's nice to know that rugby league is able to transcend these barriers in a way that stands itself out as a sport the world over.
"I have eaten magnificent food over the last few days. Ray and his wife have made sure I have eaten all the different ones Lebanon has to offer including the hot and cold meze with fresh, balloon-like pita bread, the wide variety of pastries with meat or cheese, the Lebanese sweets and, probably the most difficult to manage, the raw meat including liver, brains and mince, which is a delicacy!
"With this in my stomach I am to embark on the next adventure as we close my first week in Lebanon and travel tonight to Rome then on a plane to Venice before we end up at Monselice, the venue of our base and first match versus Italy"