x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Rugby league faces a battle to earn its spot in the UAE

There is a risk the 13-a-side game will become known as a keep-fit exercise for union players, or a minor aside when other sporting options are limited.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Mar 28 : UAE Falcons rugby team during the training session at the rugby field in Dubai Sports City in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Sports. Story by Paul
DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Mar 28 : UAE Falcons rugby team during the training session at the rugby field in Dubai Sports City in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Sports. Story by Paul

Union still the main game

Rugby league followers are a proud lot. The idea of having to shoehorn their programme into a small window between the end of the union season and the time when the heat becomes too intense goes against the grain.

There is a risk the 13-a-side game will become known as a keep-fit exercise for union players, or a minor aside when other sporting options are limited. However, in this country, it is a necessary evil - at least for now.

The other code has been entrenched in expatriate life for more than 40 years. Given its history, the quality of senior men's competition, as well as the fact it is the code of choice at youth level, union has been the only realistic option for rugby players here to date.

The 15 man version survived its only realistic threat in the UAE - last year's move from a multi-state, pan-Gulf union to a single-nation one - and emerged stronger for it. League, by contrast, has been absent since taking its first tentative steps with two matches between the UAE Falcons and an emerging Lebanon side nearly three years ago.

When some of the drivers of league's arrival moved away, and Sol Mokdad, the Emirates rugby league chairman, had his spare time clipped by a change of job, interest lapsed.

Intriguingly, though, the first coming did spark significant interest. A crowd of three-figures watched the second Falcons match, probably because a mass brawl had curtailed the first one. Rugby players of differing backgrounds, it seems, were united in bloodlust.

There is no doubt there is an appetite for league. But it is likely to have to gather crumbs from under the table of XVs for a while yet.