Rugby league in the UAE is making huge gains in terms of popularity, exposure and support, but that’s not to say it hasn’t had its share of trying times.
Firstly, it has to compete against its more illustrious and established older brother, rugby union.
Then there are financial implications – after the debut league season was played in 2013 there was then no competition at all in 2014 due to a lack of sponsorship.
There’s even the issue of, halfway through just its second season, the sport being forced to undergo a rapid rebrand due to the threat of legal action from the union governing body, the UAE Rugby Federation.
Despite suddenly changing name to Rugby League Commission, there are finally signs that progress is being made.
Two years ago, the RLC’s Lebanese president Sol Mokdad funded half of the entire rugby league season himself – at a personal cost of Dh15,000.
Now he has a chorus of helpers, including a board and executive committee ensuring he is no longer a one-man band.
Mokdad first laid the foundations for rugby league in the UAE in 2007 when there was no such thing in the country, taking it upon himself to approach the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) to establish the sport in the Middle East, a truly daunting task.
The first Rugby League Cup was played in 2013 and won by Abu Dhabi Harlequins, but all of Mokdad’s work looked like it would be forgotten when the 2014 season failed to go ahead due to financial struggles, chief among them the failure to attract a sponsor.
After pumping his own money into the initial campaign, Mokdad knew he couldn’t afford to do the same again.
Another Dh10,000 in 2013 had come courtesy of PR agency TBWA/RAAD and a further Dh5,000 from merchandise.
The only option was to cancel the season, but in 2015 things appear to be running a lot smoother.
This year’s competition is known as the Nissan Rugby League Cup after the car manufacturer stumped up a five-figure sum.
Reigning champions Harlequins are back to defend their crown and are joined by Xodus Wasps, Al Ain Amblers and Dubai Sharks.
Even though the Nissan financial package is initially only for a season, talks are ongoing to expand that for another three years.
— Apollo Perelini (@Apollo11Rugby) April 21, 2015
On top of that, a host of familiar names have leant their support.
Fitness First provide Man of the Match awards. Bespoke Wellness supply the competition’s medical, physio and massage requirements both pre and post-match.
Zaatar W Zeit provide food for the players, while mineral water firm BLK supply referees kits.
To drive down costs further, the three rounds of the competition are played at a different venue each week, with every host club providing an ambulance each weekend.
At the third and Grand Final rounds in Al Ain, costs won’t be an issue as the club will provide its Al Ain Equestrian Shooting & Golf Club facilities for free.
All these are little boosts for a fledgling organisation, but something Mokdad hopes might develop into full financial backing soon.
“It’s come a long way since 2007 and has come on leaps and bounds this season, thanks to the exposure we’re getting,” said Mokdad.
“We’ve been able to get really good people on board. Before it was a one man show, just me, and there’s only so much I could do.”
Rugby union in the UAE, like league, is an amateur sport.
However, when you consider that the Rugby League Commission supplied its own kits to three of the teams in 2013, while Dubai Exiles have a reportedly lucrative shirt sponsorship deal with AIG, union is still light years ahead.
“I’ve had this running battle with the governing body where they expect us to compete with rugby union,” said the 30-year-old.
“Union here is huge. They have a lot of money and access to funds whereas we’re trying to develop a sport with a similar concept with no funds from anywhere.
“It’s very difficult without sponsors. I’ve put a lot of my own money into it to get it going. It’s picked up now and more people are on board.”
Much of that is thanks to Nissan, although the sponsorship for this season almost never arrived.
— UAE RUGBY FEDERATION (@uaerugby) April 11, 2015
Arabian Automobiles Company (AAC) are the sole distributor of Nissan in Dubai and the Northern Emirates. An original six-figure deal was reduced to five because
AAC were unsure about backing rugby. They almost backed out, but decided to go ahead for this season.
Mokdad said: “It will be readdressed at the end of the season. We’re already looking at them taking us on for another three years, and the exposure we are getting is helping us. It’s definitely something they’re interested in.
“We’re putting all our eggs into the basket of the Grand Final and hopefully, by then, they’ll have decided how they want to move forward. Associating with big brands will get more companies buying into what you want to do.”
After three weeks of Cup competition, the Grand Final will be played in Al Ain on Friday, May 15.
Venues are another area where the RLC has been able to drive down costs and Mokdad said: “It’s really expensive to run a sport in Dubai. Especially in terms of facilities, because there’s so many people competing for the same amount of space.
“You won’t be able to find anything for less than Dh1,000 per hour for a decent, full-sized pitch, and that’s even if you can find one. At Dubai Sports City, just for the facilities and water, it costs Dh4,600 before anyone did anything.”
In addition to Nissan’s backing and each team paying a registration fee of Dh1,500 each, the league operates on Dh16,000 a season.
Whatever happens in the future, Mokdad insists rugby league is here to stay.
“What happened in 2014 is a thing of the past because we’ve got a functioning board and executive committee whose sole purpose is commercial drive and the commercial side of the RLC,” he said.
“Their job is to get sponsors. We can run the competition at a low cost because there only has to be four teams and a round robin format to meet affiliate criteria.
“We’re not obliged to have a longer season which costs more. We can run the competition for as low as Dh5,000. It won’t be as flash but there’s no worries about it not going ahead again.
“And we’re already planning to expand next season as I’ve already had calls from two teams who want to enter, Dubai Exiles and Beaver Nomads. With more teams, comes more interest and more sponsors.”
As for future plans, becoming an affiliate member of the governing body is at the top of the agenda.
Mokdad said: “We receive no funds from the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) or RLEF as of yet because we’re only observer members.
“That is the first level of membership to the RLEF. What we’re trying to get by our AGM in July is affiliate membership, which means we can apply for funds and grants.”
Part of reaching affiliate status is the implementation of youth programme and national representation, both of which the RLC is keen to address.
They are planning on staging an international fixture against Lebanon in June and will also be hosting a Rugby World Cup qualifier between Lebanon and South Africa in October.
A singular rugby league academy is also in the pipeline, with aims to boost the ranks of the national team, the Falcons.
“Our ultimate plan is do what we’re doing now again next year, but bigger and better,” said Mokdad.
“We want all the money from sponsorship to go towards putting on a real spectacle of an event. It definitely feels like things are starting to come together.”
Meet the teams…
Abu Dhabi Harlequins
Coach: Tony Scott
Previous best: Reigning champions (2013). Quins were undefeated as they lifted the first rugby league trophy, historically becoming the first champions of a domestic rugby league competition held in the Emirates.
Star players: Lots of Quins’ exciting young union prospects are part of their league team, including the explosive Iziq Foa’i, William Umu and Ben Santamarina. New guys Matt Smith, Brian Geraghty and Scott Brodie have also been making headlines in the early weeks of the season.
Coach: James Agus
Previous best: 2013 Plate winners. Wasps beat Al Ain Amblers 60-36 two years ago but under Agus, a former Great Britain youth international and Leeds Rhinos academy player, they are looking to make the Cup final this season.
Star players: They have a host of former league stars and promising young talent from the UK. Centre Jaymes Chapman formally played for Halifax, Conor Armstrong is a product of Warrington Wolves’ academy and Sam Housley used to play for Huddersfield Giants.
Al Ain Amblers
Coach: Keleto Dyer
Previous best: Formed in 2013, the Amblers went down to the Xodus Wasps in the Plate final two seasons ago, but have come into the Nissan Rugby League Cup on the back of an awesome union season in which they won the UAE Conference and won promotion to the UAE Premiership.
Star players: Ranato Tikoisolomone and Joshua Raviti Navabale are two players with rugby league experience, while the club’s powerful Fijian contingent provide energy, as well as new South African signing Tiaan Visser. Beat Dubai Sharks 100-6 in round two of the competition last week.
Coach: Ray Shaw
Previous best: New boys Sharks are in unchartered waters, making their debut in the Nissan Rugby
Star players: Little general Dan Crumplin, who is the side’s skipper and scrum-half, is an explosive player. Stevie Lennard, a union second row who’s physical game suits league, has also been singled out. Union players Alan Robertson and Etienne Masson are also in the team, while Aphaxard Andrew is a handful.
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