DUBAI // As marketing strategies go, it was a masterstroke, even if it was more by accident than design.
Organise a rugby league match involving Pakistan and stage it on a field next to a busy company cricket tournament.
Genius. Saatchi & Saatchi could not have done it better.
As the Pakistan team - a mixture of players from Islamabad, the UAE and the north of England - sung their national anthem before kick-off, the interest of scores of cricket supporters sitting on the neighbouring banks was immediately piqued.
"Who is playing in this game - is it Pakistan?" inquired one salwar kameez-wearing employee of Al Rostamani, whose corporate cricket day he had come to watch at Dubai Sports City yesterday.
"Zindabad!" he roared in approval when he found out the white and green team were representing his homeland.
There were around 200 supporters who had made the trip to Sports City specifically for the rugby league match. Throw in the sudden converts from cricket and that was more than doubled.
Such numbers are a boon for a sport trying to find its niche in the UAE sporting landscape.
"A lot of these people probably don't even know rugby exists in Pakistan," said Sol Mokdad, the chairman of Emirates National Rugby League.
"I am stoked with how many people have come to watch. We have genuine interest in the league in this country."
While both these nations are taking baby steps in the game at present, the match itself was one for proper grown-ups. The faint-hearted need not have applied.
The UAE side have been absent for the best part of three years as the game has hit a lull in this country, and that exile seemingly continued for the first 10 minutes against Pakistan as they fell 10 points below early in the match.
Once they had asserted a foothold through a try by Rama Chand, however, they managed to stay just far enough ahead to secure a second successive home victory - albeit nearly three years after the last one. "We were pretty lucky to get away with a win after that start," said Chand, the captain whose second try was the winner in a six tries to five victory for the home side.
"Pakistan have a lot of potential, and you could see they were more together as a team, having been together for a bit longer than us."
Ikram Butt, the former Leeds winger who is the driving force behind Pakistan's rugby league movement, was not downcast in defeat.
"When you measure success, I think it was a tremendous performance," he said.
"We arrived Sunday, had two training sessions and we know we can improve.
"The boys have seen how the UAE played and that is a marker for us now."
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