DUBAI // The 100 or so supporters who turned out to watch the nation's new rugby league side playing on Monday night looked rather lost, amid the bare scaffolding stands which hold 40,000 people per day during the Dubai Rugby Sevens. If evidence were required of just how much needs to be done to establish rugby's other code on these shores, this was it. Union has been entrenched in expatriate life in the Gulf for more than 30 years. Dubai annually plays host to one of the International Rugby Board's most popular sevens events, at which an attendance world record was set in November.
The carnival atmosphere of Sevens weekend was in short supply when the UAE Falcons claimed their maiden win this week. Those who had made the trip out into the desert reclined on the green bleachers of Pitch One's main stand, doing their best to ward off the effects of the clammy, 40°C heat. On the field, the Liban Espoir - meaning Emerging Lebanon - players did their best to make it an event, belting out their national anthem a cappella before charging into battle.
And the attendance was far better than nothing, bearing in mind barely anyone knew the 13-man code existed in the Gulf, beyond the 30-odd players who meet twice a week at Zabeel Park to throw around the prolate spheroid. At least they can say they were there the first time a side from the UAE tasted victory in the format. Emirates Rugby League want to enter a competitive side into the qualifying for the 2013 World Cup, and on this evidence that is not an unattainable dream.
In the form of Wayne McDonald, Josh Sherrin and Billy Asmar there is obvious talent. McDonald, in particular, is a special case. He moved to Dubai after retiring from a 14-year professional career in England's leading competition, where he played Super League for Leeds Rhinos, among other top-tier sides. He is keen to spread the word about league to a new audience. "League is what I have been brought up with," said McDonald, 33. "I have a lot of time and passion for rugby league and I would love to see it take off. It is very new, but hopefully in a few years' time it could be the same as union. It is an exciting game."
The former Scotland captain, who, at 6ft 7ins, was Super League's tallest player for many years, has played for the Falcons on their sporadic outings so far, but now plays his regular rugby in the Gulf League of the 15-man code. The Falcons wore the shirts of his side, the Dubai Exiles, on Monday night. According to McDonald, kit is not the only thing league can borrow from union. "When I came out here I had not touched a ball in union before, but threw myself at it because there was no league here then," he said.
"I knew the rules and how to do it, but I hadn't taken part in it, as I was rugby league professional. There are many parallels anyway. A lot of union sides have rugby league players in there - Shaun Edwards coaches the Lions and he is from a rugby league background. "Whatever experience I have gained from league, I have tried to apply to their game when I am coaching kids. I am coaching a guy at the moment who is 19 and going to university, and I have told him to try both codes.
"It makes you a better player rather than concentrating on one. I definitely try to get that point across." At the moment all the talent in the Falcons side is expatriate, and it is something Sol Mokdad, in his role as the director of development for Emirates RL, is keen to address. "Emirati people are laid back," he said. "They love their football. Physically, they are built to play rugby league, especially on the wings, and that is what we want to do.
"We want to start introducing Emiratis into the sport by giving them less physical contact. We need to develop the sport from the youth, then the whole mentality will change as to how they perceive the game, and how they watch rugby league. "We want them to be playing rugby league in break-time at Emirati schools. People will like it, and you will even get the odd person who wants to smash someone. Not all Emiratis are laid back, many will love the physical aspect."
Mokdad aims to have a domestic competition in place by the end of the year. He also wants to adopt the Lebanese template, and introduce the sport into universities. "This is a very thought out project, we have business plans, youth development ideas, coaching programmes," he added. "It is a long-term project, it is possible. We don't want to go into expat schools, we want to go into Emirati schools and have them love this sport.
"They are two different codes. They share the name rugby but they are two different sports. The rules are totally different, and I believe the sport of rugby league will appeal much more, especially with our strategy and development. I believe Emiratis will love the game of rugby league." If the game here is to thrive, the Lebanese influence is likely to be sizeable. Mokdad himself is a Lebanese expatriate who has settled in Dubai, though a Maori tattoo on his right arm gives a clue to his rugby aspirations.
Lebanon are 11th in the world rankings and came within an ace of qualifying for last year's World Cup. Their exploits were based on a core of Australian players of Lebanese descent, but the sport is firmly established in Beirut. They will no doubt benefit from having competition in the Middle East, and Mokdad says the rivalry is already fierce. "We have developed an awesome rivalry - it is kind of like State of Origin," he said, predicting next month's rematch will be even more fierce.
"We are the two rugby league playing nations in the Middle East. It will be head to head until another nation develops. It is a rivalry, but it is rugby - at the end of the game we are shaking hands." firstname.lastname@example.org