Australian Rules football in the Middle East is unique – and at times problematic. Unlike most leagues that play their games with teams from within a country, AFL Middle East (Like AFL Asia) is a competition played amongst nations. The traditional nations in the league – United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain – have held the league together through many formats over the years depending of the availability of teams for that season.
But the political, economic, social and geographical challenges involved across this part of the world have conspired to halt the progress of some clubs – the latest being the Doha Kangaroos from Qatar. Just three seasons ago, the Kangaroos claimed their maiden AFL Middle East premiership. Now, after a period of travel instability across the region, mainly political in nature, the Kangaroos will sit out the remainder of the 2017/18 season.
Whilst the AFL Middle East football community had eyes firmly locked on the grand final replay between the Dragons and Bulls, it was another Emirates team that sent a strong message of their own. The Abu Dhabi Falcons fought hard against the Dragons in Round One and followed that up with a comprehensive win against the Dingoes to drive home the message that the Falcons are right there in the finals mix.
In a game of two halves, the Falcons did the damage with a 74 to 21 first half. The second half belonged to the Dingoes as they clawed back some of the deficit to outscore the Falcons after half time. Their effort was even more commendable with just two players on the bench. But the damage had already been done early as the Falcons ran out convincing 43 point victors. So early in the season yet, but the Falcons are on track to stay in the finals battle waiting for one of the top two teams to falter.
Round One of the 2017/18 AFL Middle East season got under way in Dubai on Thursday and Friday amid the warmth of the Middle Eastern climate. Last year’s grand finalists, the Dubai Dragons and Multiplex Bulls, both enjoyed first up wins and have already grabbed a flying advantage over all other teams.
Thursday evening saw the season opener when the Multiplex Bulls took on the Dubai Dingoes. On a warm but pleasant evening under lights at Dubai Sports City, the Dingoes threw everything at the Bulls early. According to the AFL Middle East report:
“[The game was played in] very still and pleasant conditions - 29 degrees for the 8:30pm kick off but humidity was low. The Dingoes won the toss [and] had plenty of new faces. Captain Ben Dawson did his calf during the week and could only manage 5 minutes of game time – a big loss for the Dingoes.”
One of the hallmarks of a great dynasty is to understand that change is inevitable and be able to absorb change and continue forward. It is what has powered great nations and cultures over time and a similar process occurs in sport.
The Dubai Dragons – winner of five out of the past six AFL Middle east premierships – is in that position now. They may be at the end of their great reign, or they may be on a solid plateau set for another year of greatness. Time will tell, but one thing that is certain is they have embraced change over this past off-season. How they respond will determine whether the new season brings more glory or the start of a new phase of rebuilding.
The club is acutely aware of this and is addressing needs. Iain Rowe, president of the Dubai Dragons, offers his insight.
During the 2009 AFL Middle East season, the Bahrain Blues first entered the fields of footy battle when they played in the Dubai 9’s tournament. By later that year the nation’s Australian Rules football team was a part of the AFL Middle East competition proper. Big things were possible and the sky was the limit.
Then came the “Arab Spring”, a period of political turmoil across much of the Middle East and northern Africa, which saw massive protests and clashes across many nations. Bahrain itself was a part of this. The island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia saw clashes and the unsettled nature of the events between 2010 and 2012 (predominantly 2011 in Bahrain) saw the landscape change for footy as many ex-pats once involved in creating the Blues left the nation and Australian Rules football, as with other endeavours, stalled.
It was their destiny. The Multiplex Bulls entered 2016/17 confident that it would be their season. It would be their breakthrough premiership – their reward after having already felt the pain of four premiership defeats in previous seasons. Admittedly, one of those was a pre-season cup in their inaugural season, but they still hurt.
Last season it was the Bulls first into the Grand Final and they waited as the Dubai Dragons won their way into the final clash of the year. However, this year it would be the Bulls – finally.
It was not. They went down by just a goal. Not only were the Bull’s hearts broken again, but the margin was further salt into raw wounds…so close and yet so far.
The Bulls now have a new season ahead of them, but acknowledge how much the club hurts. According to the club, “the Bulls were gutted last year to not take the prize, but we are looking forward to another strong and successful season. We have been training in some pretty awful summer conditions since August.”
The new 2017/18 season for AFL Middle East is now ready to roll into action with the release of the new season draw. All eyes will turn to Dubai on the 20th October with the first of three “double headers” in the city. Other features for the season include eight matches per team for the Dubai based clubs and a special provision for the Doha Kangaroos.
Bahrain will not enter the league for this season. Instead, they will use the season to recruit and be ready to re-enter for the 2018/19 season. The Muscat Magpies will not enter a team, focusing on Gaelic Football instead. However, to borrow from James Bond – “never say never again”.
The new season will not feature a pre-season cup competition – the focus placed instead on extra rounds for points across the season.
One has to have some respect for those who write the draw for the AFL Middle East competition. Far from being a simple Team A v Team B and repeat competition, the Middle East throws up a unique set of challenges to have teams play matches once, much less for a whole season.
But the fact that they do so every year is evidence of the passion with which the people involved in the AFL Middle East competition operate.
Whilst four of the teams are located within the United Arab Emirates – the Dubai Dragons, Dubai Dingoes and the Multiplex Bulls are each based in Dubai and the Abu Dhabi Falcons are located 140 kilometres to the south-west. If it were just those four clubs thing might be relatively easy – but there is more.
To the winners – congratulations! The Dubai Dragons are the deserved AFL Middle East Premiers for the 2016/17 season. They have built up across the season in preparation for the biggest day of all. In the process they have re-written history (again!) and set the bar for success to a height that may or may not be reached again. Nothing should take away the sheer joy of the Dragon’s success this year, and will not.
But, for a moment, spare a thought for the gallant Multiplex Bulls. For the third consecutive season they have been beaten in the grand final by the Dubai Dragons. Three times they have felt the heartache of a premiership defeat – more if you count their debut season loss to the Dragons in the pre-season cup. They will be hurting – all the more for the fact that the final margin was just six points. So near, yet so far. Justifiably, there will be some Bulls wondering if they can ever win a flag. But they can, and they will. Later.
They have been the titans of the AFL Middle East competition for the past three seasons – the Dubai Dragons and the Multiplex Bulls. Since arriving to the competition for the 2014/15 season, the Bulls haven’t missed a grand final. The Dragons are after an extraordinary five flags in six seasons. They have truly been the gladiators of the competition and tomorrow they meet again in the AFL Middle East Grand Final.
For the record, here are some stats that will matter. The teams have met in two premiership season grand finals – both won by the Dragons. They also met in two pre-season grand finals, with a win apiece. The Dragons hold the edge in total win/loss results. But, significantly, it was the Bulls that reigned supreme last time the two teams met – downing the Dragons by 34 points after a huge eight goal to one second half.