To challenge on rugby, Middle East needs to pick up pace of growth

Rugby League is gaining in popularity in Lebanon 
and Saudi Arabia, but for a World Cup to be more than a distant dream for local fans of the sport, 
greater financial and organisational support in the Middle East region is needed.

Powered by automated translation

Rugby league has struggled to establish itself in the Middle East, with government recognition often lacking and sponsors not always keen to get involved with what is a minority sport.

The Middle East and Africa region of the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) has 13 members but only two – Lebanon and South Africa – contested qualifiers for next year’s World Cup finals in Australasia with the Lebanese qualifying.

A Lebanon side was put together for the 2000 World Cup in Australia by Sydney-based expats, who succeeded in subsequently introducing the sport to the region, but the prospect of Beirut staging a Rugby League World Cup is some way off.

“I would love to see this take place in Lebanon, but realistically the country and region is unstable at the moment, and would need solid sporting infrastructure and the support of the government,” says Remond Safi, the chief executive at the Lebanese Rugby League Federation and the RLIF’s Middle East Africa director.

About 1,000 men, women and children play the game in Lebanon, where there are five clubs. Five domestic players featured in the victory over South Africa that saw the Lebanon side qualifying for next year’s World Cup.

The RLIF has three tiers of membership and Lebanon are the Middle East’s only full ­member.

There are no tier-two affiliate members and the three other RLIF members – Egypt, Palestine and Saudi Arabia – only have observer status.

These associations typically grew out of rugby union – such as the Palestine federation, which emerged from Beit Jala Lions, and has played in Cyprus, Hungary and Jordan – but finance remains a problem.

“Until now, we didn’t receive any funding from outside for rugby league.

“For commercial sponsorship, it is very difficult to get it because rugby is not famous enough in Palestine,” says Jamal Abu Farha from the Palestinian Rugby League.

The Lebanese are at least negotiating with sponsors and the Saudi Arabian Rugby Football Association (Sarfa) has attracted sponsorship and help from DHL, Hagbani Solar, Hala SCS and the National Rugby League in Australia.

Three players, Shaun Nichols, Chris Ratcliffe and David ­Kinhead from the Jeddah ­Rugby Union Club, established a junior rugby league side in 2010 in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern ­Province, which has attracted players from national communities alongside expats from Britain and the southern ­hemisphere.

“The aim is to penetrate the Saudi schools and to have as many Saudi players as possible,” says Mr Nichols.

“I am happy to say that a fair number of our players are Saudi or other Arab nationalities as well as Pakistani.

“In other words, countries that are not known for rugby.”

A Saudi Arabian youth side first played in the 2010 Mena Cup in Lebanon and today about 100 players of Middle East origin alone play the sport in Saudi Arabia.

“Our aim is to move to further afield, fixtures in Doha, UAE and Hong Kong, this sport is needing more recognition in the Middle East,” says Matt Bowen of the Sarfa.

For the code to grow across the region it needs greater support from the RLIF, says Sol Mokdad, whose nine-year quest to establish rugby league in Dubai finally ended last year. “It takes a lot of money to develop the sport,” says Mr Mokdad.

“I got Nissan to sponsor us for Dh10,000.

“That’s peanuts but I pushed Nissan up there to show rugby league was involved with a major international brand.

“That was starting to work.”

Mr Mokdad left Dubai for Beirut, where he was working until recently with the Lebanese rugby league association.

He says the RLIF needs to emulate its counterparts in rugby union to establish the code in the region.

“Union has its strategy in place correctly,” says Mr Mokdad.

“I was only 22 when I started out and had no guidance from the international federation or financial support.”

Follow The National's Business section on Twitter