Champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins are the only team in UAE rugby fielding four teams this season, and it’s a good job they have plenty in reserve as the first-team squad are being stretched to the limit in the early weeks of the campaign.
Already shorn of star trio Patrick Jenkinson, Brian Geraghty and Willie Umu who all departed for pastures new in the summer, the club was dealt a crippling blow last week when talisman Ben Bolger announced his retirement, aged just 28, due to ongoing concussion issues.
Coach Mike McFarlane must feel like he’s putting fires out at every turn, with the news that another key trio will also be sidelined for the season by injury.
Phil Abraham, Garth van Niekirk and Muneeb Galaxy have all been ruled out for the remainder of the campaign, leaving Quins severely hampered.
But McFarlane is remaining stoic, revealing adversity is being met with determination by his squad.
“We are at an interesting and testing time where we have lost so many first-team players from last year and now with season-ending injuries to several players,” said McFarlane, whose injury-ravaged side chalked up a gritty 25-17 win over Dubai Hurricanes on Friday to remain unbeaten after three games.
“But that adversity is being knocked down by the boys through hard work and excellent club culture which has always been paramount. The boys are training hard and I couldn’t ask any more of them.
“The quality that our second XV provide in training and games has so far kept the first XV ticking and to stand unbeaten after a grueling Champions League and opening set of fixtures is testament to the players and coaching team.
“It was a good win on Friday and we were happy to battle through. One game in October when the season goes on until April is frustrating for continuity and we have another week off now also.”
The atmosphere surrounding Dubai Eagles captain Conor Coakley must be feeling pretty lofty right now – and not just because the Irish behemoth stands at well over six feet tall.
Not many people believed the club would enjoy any shred of success in their debut campaign in UAE rugby, but Coakley and Eagles were walking on air a few weeks ago when they earned a maiden triumph in just their second competitive fixture as a club.
A gritty 17-11 win over Abu Dhabi Saracens arrived in the second week of the West Asia Premiership and that has seen belief at Dubai Sports City soar.
They have been brought back down to earth slightly since – a close 28-12 reversal against Dubai Hurricanes a week later followed by a 68-0 hammering at the hands of Jebel Ali Dragons last Thursday.
Coakley, however, is not deterred. Eagles is a project and he knows 2017/18 will be a continual learning process.
“I’m delighted,” the 32-year-old all-action flanker, a former Canes player, said following the milestone victory against Sarries.
“I was with Doha for years and played a season in Kuwait too and that’s one of my highs in rugby.
“We’re still building. We feel we’re building something really big here and (the Sarries game) was the beginning of it. We put our stamp on the rugby map.
“It was scrappy and there were mistakes made but we played some great systems too and kept our discipline. The guys are playing for each other, so I’m really happy.”
“We’ve got the first win and we’re going to build on this. There were times where things went right but we’ve still got a lot to do, a lot to work on.”
In danger of getting carried away, he checks himself before adding confidently: “But we’ll be targeting more wins before Christmas.”
Having not played a full competitive game for two years due to injury, the burly forward admitted adrenaline got him through a mentally and physically draining game.
And he revealed vanquished opponents Sarries are benchmark Eagles aspire to reach.
“I think so, yes,” adds Coakley when asked if the win proves Eagles belong at the elite level of UAE rugby, a debate that raged all summer among their peers after they were granted entry for the season by the UAE Rugby Federation.
“As do Sarries. They’re going through a rough time but they’ll bounce through it. They have a core group of fantastic players that are working hard for them and it’s fantastic for the Gulf.
“I think they’ll push on and I wish them all the best, they’re a good club. There’s a lot of similarities between us and them.”
As well as the defeat to Dragons, Eagles opened their season with an 85-8 loss at the hands of Dubai Exiles. Head coach Pat Benson is aware there are more ups and downs ahead for the Eagles, but knows their flight path is the real focus.
“There’s different priorities. Winning is not necessarily the main aim,” said Benson.
“It’s more about coming together and establishing what we’re trying to achieve. As we get better as a team the margins (of defeat) and the results will be closer, it’s about finding our feet within the league.
It might seem to others on the outside looking in that the club has sprung up out of nowhere, with little thought given to the long term. But Benson insists that is not the case and that Eagles have a dedicated team – including Coakley – who are planning to help Eagles stick around and ruffle a few more feathers.
“Conor’s doing a lot of work at the club, just making it a nice atmosphere for families to come down to,” added Benson.
“You’ve got Sean (Hurley, fly-half, a UAE international and Eagles director of rugby) putting in a lot of work behind the scenes and Josh Ives too, who is the head of the junior and minis.
“I’m very excited about the chance to work with Eagles. I feel week by week we’re becoming closer as a club and feel the guys are buying into our overall goal with effort at training.
“We’re just giving more guys more exposure to Premiership rugby and I’m proud of how the boys have trained so far. Morale’s high which hopefully means we’re not as nervous to try playing more and can piece more together.”
When the Lebanese Rugby League first tried to introduce the game to the country in the early 2000s they discovered a problem.
“A lot of fights,” explains Remond Safi, the CEO of the Lebanese Rugby League Federation (LRLF).
“Because of the contact, fights kept breaking out all the time. We had to make them understand the game – that what happens on the field stays on the field.
“This is a contact sport and these are the rules you have to stick by or else you can’t play the game.”
But this was just one hurdle to overcome in an extraordinary journey that has now taken Lebanon to their first Rugby League World Cup (RLWC). [A Lebanese team did compete in the 2000 RLWC but the team was organised by an association based in Sydney].
The rise of Lebanese Rugby League actually began in the inner west suburbs of Sydney back in the late 1990s.
“(Rugby League in Lebanon) is a very strange mix” explains Safi, “because the country didn’t know the game at all until it started in Australia in 1997 with the players of Lebanese heritage.”
Canterbury-Bankstown was an area that many Lebanese families who immigrated to Australia in the 1970s settled in. According to the latest census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 71 per cent of the nearly 79,000 Lebanese-Australians live in Sydney. Around 20,000 Lebanese live in a small patch of suburbs in south-west Sydney bordered by the M7 Motorway, Parramatta Road, Canterbury Road and the M5 Motorway – Canterbury-Bankstown.
Greenacre, with 3,389 Lebanese residents, is officially known as “Little Lebanon”.
The area boasted a very strong league club, the Bulldogs, and as the sons of the immigrants grew up they began to be attracted to this strange game in their new home.
Their hero was Hazem El Masri, the Bulldogs’ goal-kicking fullback and the highest points scorer in NRL history with 2,418.
“El Magic”, as he is known, was born in Tripoli and emigrated to Australia when he was 12. He was the captain of the Lebanese side at the 2000 RLWC and many of Lebanon’s players in this year’s League’s long journey from Bondi to Beirut tournament were inspired to take up the game after watching him play for the Bulldogs.
The growth of the game in Lebanon can directly be traced to that RLWC appearance in 2000. After that the beginnings of a local league began to take shape. Safi was there from the beginning.
“With a lot of difficulties,” he replies when asked how they set up the first competition. “We had an international development officer at the time who was there to start up the game, and a few other western minds as administrators.
“They were able to set it up and not take no for an answer from everybody they spoke to. That was their motto: ‘You have to try it before you say no to it.’”
After those humble beginnings the LRLF now has “just under 1,000 players”.
“There is currently a national championship with six clubs registered, five are active in that championship,” Safi continues. “You’ve got 11 university teams playing in two divisions. We have two regions playing in school championships with ages of 14, 16 and 18. We’ve also got three women’s teams and another two are being formed.”
Setting up the women’s league was again a challenge.
“It was a bit difficult at the beginning stages with our culture,” Safi says. “Having women play a sport and especially a contact sport. “But we’ve overcome those barriers and they are well on their way. They played already under the Junipers name and they played their first international match this February against Italy.”
This RLWC campaign is the fruition of many years of hard work.
“This is the first RLWC officially as a federation out of Lebanon,” continues Safi. “The first one officially under the auspices of the Sports Ministry.”
The Lebanon squad includes 11 NRL stars of Lebanese heritage, including Parramatta star Mitchell Moses and Canterbury hooker Michael Lichaa. Former New South Wales hooker Robbie Farah was named as their captain.
The rest of the squad are players from the Queensland or NSW state leagues, the competitions underneath the NRL.
Lebanon will be coached by former Australia half-back Brad Fittler, the man tipped to be appointed the new NSW State of Origin coach.
Five Lebanese-based players have been included in a larger squad, and one is actually part of the 24-man playing group – Raymond Sabat from Lycans FC in Beirut. Safi says Sabat has been included on merit.
“Whether he gets a starting position in the 17 (match day squad) is up to the skill level and the coach,”
“Raymond has been playing since he was 12. Most of the local Lebanese players who have come in to camp have been with us for a while and been through the system.
“Two of the players have gone through the age system we have in Lebanon, the Under-16, U18 and U20 and the Cedars. So they have played in all national teams in Lebanon.”
Safi is hopeful of a good performance by the team in Australia ahead of Sunday’s opener against France.
“There is a very strong chance we can make the quarter-finals,” he says. “But it all depends on what happens in that 80 minutes, how switched on our players are and how disciplined they will be.”
A strong performance in the RLWC will further strengthen the game in the region. “There is a huge plan and a strong strategy to set up the game in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) with my other role as the MEA regional director for the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF),” adds Safi.
“And we’re doing that using Lebanon’s model and coaching staff to assist in educating and developing the game.”
Plans include growing the game in South Africa, Burundi, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana, Siera Leone, Ethiopia, Congo, Morocco, the UAE (currently suspended) and Turkey with activities also in Tunisia, Algeria and Qatar.
“Our challenges are to find the manpower to increase the demand of participating teams,” he says.
“You need to provide a certain quality of coach in order to establish and develop and continue to embed a culture for these new teams. Also to find a way for players when they graduate from university not to leave the country.”
The LRLF have also organised a way for people of Lebanese heritage around the world to get behind the team during the tournament, buying global membership pack online. “We’re trying to build and start preparing ourselves for the next World Cup which is in England (in 2021). By becoming a member you get updated on what we’re doing and what we’re up to,” said Safi.
To buy a membership pack go to www.lebanonrl.com.