x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Emirates National Rugby League looking for breakthrough season

The latest new dawn for rugby league in the UAE promises to be its brightest yet - despite organisers admitting they feel they are 'starting from scratch'.

The UAE Falcons, in black, played against a Pakistan side in March last year at the Dubai Sports City. Satish Kumar / The National
The UAE Falcons, in black, played against a Pakistan side in March last year at the Dubai Sports City. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // Rugby league is set for its most active year yet in the UAE, even though the powers that be in the 13-man code say they feel like they are "starting from scratch" ahead of the new season.

It is 11 months since the UAE Falcons, the representative team for the sport here, last played an international fixture. Before that, league had been dormant for three years. Typically in a region as transient as this, much has changed in the intervening time. The national team are on the look out for both a new head coach and a new captain.

The winds of change have blown some good, too, though. Emirates National Rugby League are now a recognised body within the European Federation, which brings with it the promise of support for the UAE's league development plan.

Hope springs for Sol Mokdad, the president of ENRL. "Every time it takes a long time to get back into it. It is like we are starting from scratch again," Mokdad said.

"With so much happening in rugby union, it is very difficult but the level of interest from the players who want to play is really high and we are looking at a variety of options we can use for keeping league going."

The most significant development is the inception of a new league, involving one team from Abu Dhabi and three from Dubai.

The month-long season, which will be shoehorned into the domestic sporting calendar when the union season ends, is a precursor to the international campaign for the Falcons side, which includes playing in a Mena tournament this summer.

Mokdad has been enthused by the appetite for the game shown by a variety of people currently heavily invested in rugby union instead. "If the most successful rugby club here, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, are putting their hand up and saying they want to get involved in league, we must be doing something right," he said.

Harlequins will start the new competition from a position of power.

Quins such as Clendon Pene and - the currently injured - Michael McFarlane were among the stand out players in the brief league campaign last March and April. Since then the club have even recruited a former professional, Ben Bolger, direct from the ranks of Super League where he played for the London Broncos.

Chris Davies, the capital club's director of rugby who is set to double as the ENRL's coaching liaison officer, believes the league project will give more opportunities for game time for the players.

"For guys who haven't made the Asian Five Nations squad or aren't eligible it is an alternative and a good chance to get their hands on the ball," Davies said.

"The union off-season [from the end of March to September/October] is quite a long time to be without sport.

"And there are stacks of players who don't play union at all but who like league who live in the area. This will give them the chance to have some exposure."

pradley@thenational.ae

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