Nigeria and Morocco will contest the final of the 2019 Middle East Africa (MEA) Rugby League Championship after both countries defeated Ghana and Cameroon respectively on the opening day of the four-nation tournament staged at the TBS Cricket Oval in Lagos on Wednesday.
Debutants Nigeria defeated fellow West African greenhorns Ghana 23-12 while Morocco marked their return to the international fold after an eight year hiatus with an 8-4 victory over debutants Cameroon in the early kickoff.
For a country making its first foray into Rugby League on the international scene, Nigeria acquitted itself very creditably, no doubt, buoyed by an impressive and very partisan crowd which had turned out to cheer the team to victory on their international bow.
The Nigeria Rugby League National Team With Board Members of The NRLA, President of The RLIF, Graeme Thompson and Representative of The Lagos State Government, Jermaine Sanwo-Olu
The Rugby League World Cup was also on full display to the public – the first time the trophy would be berthing in Africa, and the spectacle added to the sense of occasion and formed a captivating backdrop to the unfolding action on the grass of the Oval.
Speaking after his side’s victory over Ghana, Nigeria international Sadiq Adebiyi who plays for the London Broncos was impressed with the turn out on the first day of competition and predicted a robust future for the sport in Nigeria
“It’s massive for a nation that’s never heard of rugby league in their life to play rugby league it’s massive,” he said.
“It just shows from how many people came to watch and how many people cheering when we won, it can only get better from now on, a lot of players turning up to training, travelling 2 to 3 hours just to train just shows that rugby league in Nigeria is for the future.”
Adebiyi was also effusive in his praise for his teammates for defeating a more established and very physical Ghana team despite having trained just twice prior to the encounter.
“It was a good game. Ghana are obviously a physical side, they play rugby union so you can see that they had a lot of big boys and it was a tough physical game but, our boys showed heart through out the whole eighty minutes and having only trained twice as well, it shows that we’ve got a long way to come but these are very good signs,” he said.
And ahead of Saturday’s final against North Africans Morocco, Adebiyi believes that with a few more training sessions to “fix a few things up” Nigeria stands a “good chance” of emerging victorious and lifting the trophy.
“Yes, [we’ve got a] good chance [because] we are one of the teams that can actually play the ball. We have another two training sessions before the final to like fix a few things up but I’m really positive about going to the final,” he said.
However, a very confident Morocco side awaits Nigeria in the final, and Moroccan international Badreddine Medkouriis in no doubt who would emerge champion on Saturday.
“Hundred per cent, we are going to win it. We are tired now but for the next game they have to be careful, they have to be aware because we are the Lions, the Atlas Lions and we are going to win.”
The MEA Championship is an intiative of the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) which aims to establish the competition as the flagship international tournament for the region and, through it, facilitate the growth of the sport and fastrack the progression of a number of national federations in the region from observer status to affliate member status.
The first edition was staged in 2015 in South Africa and was won by Lebanon.
Nigeria, which only incorporated its Association last year, was chosen to host the second edition of the MEA Championship on the strength of the significant progress the Nigeria Rugby League Association (NRLA) led by its chairman Abiodun Olawale-Cole and General Manager Ade Adebisi has made in a short period.
While the country has a long established Rugby Union tradition, the NRLA has been able to engineer appreciable awareness and a groundswell of acceptance of the Rugby League code with the establishment of a nine team domestic championship which underpins their efforts at growing the sport in Nigeria.
And in further recognition of the stellar work being done by the NRLA, and as a mark of the great potential for the sport in Nigeria, a high powered delegation from the RLIF led by its chair Graeme Thompson and the Director Director of Rugby League World Cup, Karen Moorhouse were on hand to witness the first day of action at the MEA Championship.
The MEA Championship comes to an end on Saturday with the staging of the final and classification games to be played at 2pm and 4pm respectively at the TBS Cricket Oval,