Lebanon Espoirs, made up of players from the domestic league, completed their two match tour of the United Arab Emirates and met a familiar face in the code along the way.
Former Scotland skipper and St Helens, Leeds, Hull and Wakefield forward Wayne McDonald – the tallest player who graced Super League at six foot seven – was a literal stand out for the Emirates XIII, as he is now based out there.
He was a scorer in both matches for the Falcons, the first official representative games to be staged in the Gulf State.
The matches were characterised by their intense physicality, so much so that English referee Daniel Grundy called a halt to the initial clash early because of a brawl, with the hosts 16-6 ahead.
Both contests were staged at ‘7he Sevens’ Stadium, Al Ain and the sides deserved credit for maintaining their composure in the second ‘test’, which the Emirates XIII won 34-10.
The initial encounter lasted 56 minutes with a player from each side stretchered off, a mark of the uncompromising, tension-fuelled nature of the play.
General discipline disintegrated following a prolonged grapple tackle on Espoir hooker Wael Harb, whose retaliation signalled a free for all.
Lebanon team manger Danny Kazandjian commented, “in hindsight, it was an accident waiting to happen, with frustration having been allowed to escalate during the match on and off the field, which spilled over.”
“I felt for the Emirates Rugby League officials who have worked hard to put the tour on and who had media and sponsors in attendance. No one came out of the incident with any credit.”
The referee considered player safety at risk and suspended proceedings, leaving both teams shaking hands and anticipating a resumption of hostilities in the second match four days later.
Until that point the opening encounter had been a compelling spectacle in the sweltering conditions.
Three repeat sets put the hosts on the front foot from the outset with Ray Younan the beneficiary of the sustained pressure, scoring in the eighth minute.
Bill Asmar, a former Canterbury Bulldogs junior, converted to give his side a 6-0 lead but the Espoirs hit back on 20 minutes when Harb broke the Falcons around the ruck and scrum half Jad Hashem sliced through to feed Robin Hachache, Hashem adding the extras.
Five minutes before half time Joshua Sherrin, who was man of the match in last year’s Espoir versus Falcons match in Lebanon, intercepted Hashem’s long pass and raced 80 metres to score, making it 10-6 at the break.
The second half resumed in a similar, heated, vein, with Hashem sin-binned on 48 minutes for dissent.
The Espoirs were undone when McDonald used his huge frame to reach over and give the home side a 10-point lead in the 53rd minute, just before the disruption.
Emirates RL Development Manager Sol Mokdad said, “we are concerned that the image we’ve worked so hard to present has been tarnished. We have to learn from this and ensure it does not happen again. Until the incident, the match was a really good, tough rugby league contest.”
That was picked up in the second game where, in spite of taking the lead and performing strongly in the first hour, a combination of the stifling summer heat, a mounting injury list and the quality of their opponents meant that the Espoirs went down 34-10.
UAE coach Dougall Harvison said, “I’m extremely happy and the score line reflects the commitment from the guys.”
“We have some good individual players but the team came together and played as one, which is what we want.”
The visitors wilted in the last quarter as the effects of the UAE summer told. “The boys did quite well considering what they were up against,” said the Espoir coach Remond Safi. “We had seven new guys who have only been playing for a year but there are some positives.”
After Ramy Rassi’s scintillating solo try on 12 minutes, converted by Hashem, the UAE side moved out to a 14-6 half time lead through tries from Luke Sinclair, Andy Quinn and the irrepressible McDonald
The Lebanese hit back after a rare spell of sustained pressure when prop forward Ahmad El Masri barged his way over in the 48th minute to make it 14-10.
Disaster then struck for them when El Masri lost possession from the kick off allowing McDonald, named man-of-the-series, to touch down and re-establish a two-score buffer.
Sinclair, another of the Falcons’ experienced overseas players, added a penalty to his earlier try and conversion and two late converted tries in the final five minutes gave the hosts a comfortable margin and brought the curtain down a tough and exciting series.
Lebanon team manager Danny Kazandjian said, “It was a bitterly hard match and the right level for the Espoirs to play at, giving them a good understanding of what it’s like to perform against more experienced players and preparing them for the full national team.”
“We were extremely proud of their commitment and effort and we look forward to welcoming the Emirates to Lebanon this August. Middle East rugby league now has a genuine rivalry, which bodes well for the future.”
Consultations are also in progress for a Middle East/North Africa Championship in twelve months’ time in Dubai; featuring Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the UAE.