(MENAFN- Gulf Times) Rugby League has seen a lot of action in recent months across the world.
Australia won their 11th Rugby League World Cup in a December 2, 2017, beating England in the final in Brisbane. After delaying it for long, the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) granted Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) an observer status in January 2018. And there has been increased activity to introduce the 13-player-a-side sport to Qatar.
Rugby League is a full contact sport governed by the RLIF, with notable rule differences as compared to Rugby Union, which is governed by World Rugby.
Some of the differences include size of the team, there are no line-outs in Rugby League, each team is allowed six tackles before possession is handed over, and the points system (4 points and not 5 for a try and 1 point for a field goal not 3). With fewer stoppages in play and lesser number of players as compared to 15 in Rugby Union, Rugby League is often considered to be a more physically demanding discipline.
The Rugby League World Cup was first held in 1954, while the Rugby Union World Cup was first played in 1987.
Australian businessman Michael Ibrahim, who has been based out of the Middle East for the last 18 years with business interests in Oman and Qatar, has had a lot of back and forth done in recent times to have Australia play a Rugby League Test in Qatar against Tonga later this year.
'I believe there is a market for it (Rugby League) in the Gulf. It is a unique sport. I will give you an example for it. Rugby League is a very tough sport. To play it you have to be very tough, and that reflects the nature of the Qatari people in recent times. It reflects their resilience, their pride and spirit. So there is a lot of common ground between the people and the sport, Ibrahim, who is the CEO of Aqeeq Holdings, said.
'Current status, Ibrahim said, 'is that we have all the approvals from the Australian Rugby League (Commission), the New Zealand, the Pacific. We have got the agreement with (Qatar Rugby Federation president) Mr. Yousef al-Kuwari, through the union, so we are just trying to merge both parties together.
The plan, he said, is to host a blockbuster Test between Australia and Tonga later this year. 'It's like the number one playing the number two, Ibrahim said.
Australian Rugby League great Mal Meninga, currently the coach of the world champions, has also spoken of playing a charity match against Tonga in Doha in October to raise money for the victims of Cyclone Gita.
'He (Meninga) is a very big supporter of this concept. He has been pushing it. We are working together on it, Ibrahim said.
Elaborating, he added, 'And we want to have like a curtain raiser, Samoa vs Fiji. Prior to that we want to have minor Rugby League countries, such as Qatar, Philippines, Iran to also be part of this tournament. We want it to be a two-three day event and expose Rugby League to the Middle East, obviously via Qatar, and show the world that there is place for it here.
Ibrahim said that the National Rugby League (NRL), the premier Rugby League competition in Australia, are as keen as expanding the sport around the world. 'It's like a business, and has franchises worldwide, he explained.
'They want to introduce Rugby League to this region because it is beneficial for them as well. Because it would mean sponsorship deals, the more exposure you get, the more sponsorship you get. And that's just the financial benefit (aspect of it).
Unlike some countries where Rugby League has faced opposition from the national Rugby Union federation, QRF has in fact been supportive.
'We are responsible for all kinds of rugby in Qatar, whether it is Rugby Union, Rugby League or Touch, all are part of our mandate from the Qatar Olympic Committee, al-Kuwari told Gulf Times.
'Of course we are full member of the Asian Rugby Union… our priority will still be for Rugby Union. But it (Rugby League) can be treated separately. It is only a Test match so far.
'These are still early stages and we are yet to sit down face to face with Rugby League officials to iron out the details.
Asked about the reports of a Rugby League World Cup in Qatar, both Ibrahim and al-Kuwari acknowledged that there needs to be a start somewhere, read the Test match in question, and in future the sport can developed into something bigger.
'We don't want to just keep playing the Rugby League World Cup in only Australia and New Zealand, Ibrahim added.
Though as part of his 'vision, Ibrahim does think that taking players from Qatar to Australia for further exposure and training is a 'very big possibility.
'Of course there will be talent, but you need to spot them. And that's our mission, spot talent and take them to Australia, introduce them to the game. Imagine a Qatari national playing Rugby League in Australia. That would be an amazing achievement, not just for Qatar, for the Arab region. For instance, Lebanon, they made the quarter-finals of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. So it will be an amazing, amazing achievement for a local Qatari rugby player to make it to NRL, he said.
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