x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rugby league side the Falcons spread their wings

League will exploit lull in union hosting internationals and ‘State of Origin’ matches.

The UAE Falcons, in black, have not played an international match since 2009.
The UAE Falcons, in black, have not played an international match since 2009.

Rugby league is set for a rebirth in the UAE, almost three years after an embryonic national team played their first matches against international opposition.

Emirates National Rugby League (NRL) have arranged a fixture against a similarly nascent national side, Pakistan, to be staged at Dubai Sports City's academies campus on March 30.

Plans are also in place to play a three-match "State of Origin" series between league players based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai next month, followed by an Anzac Day fixture between UAE-based Australians and New Zealanders.

The 13-man code made its first tentative steps in this country in 2009 when the UAE Falcons, a side of expatriates which included Wayne McDonald, a former English Super League professional, played against Liban Espoir, Lebanon's development team.

Sol Mokdad, the Lebanese national who is the chairman of Emirates NRL, says a new Falcons team are hoping to play friendly fixtures against Lebanon and Palestine during the summer.

"The game has been dormant for the past couple of years, but we have been able to generate a lot of interest in these fixtures, especially with the [Australian] NRL matches being shown on TV," Mokdad said.

The Pakistan tour party to the UAE will be led by Ikram Butt, the former Leeds Rhinos winger who was the British Asian to play league for England in 1995. They are no strangers to Dubai, having played their first official match as a collective Pakistan side against a British Amateur Rugby League Association team in the city before the 2011 Dubai Rugby Sevens.

The window for a small rugby league season has come about because of the early finish to the union campaign.

With no club structure in the 13-man code here, many league enthusiasts get their weekly sporting fix from playing the other oval ball game.

Dubai Hurricanes set the seal on the league campaign when Steve Smith's long-range dropped goal against Jebel Ali Dragons secured the UAE Premiership on Friday.

The rugby union season will be over for the vast majority of players after this weekend's Gulf Cup matches, while the UAE national team continue their preparations for next month's Asian Five Nations.

When rugby league was last played here, it was shoehorned into the summer months, with the Falcons playing Liban in July.

"The new set up of rugby union where the season ends in March gives us a couple of months to get some games going when it isn't too hot," Mokdad said.

pradley@thenational.ae