First published in Forty-20, November 2013

MALTA – the Mediterranean’s best-kept secret. A sunny jewel set in an azure sea. A place of history and culture.

I went for the rugby league.

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Melita FC’s ground in the distance. As ever, the best way to find the ground is to aim for the floodlights

“Leave plenty of time to get there, the ground’s 20 minutes from civilisation” turns out to be good advice.  So I get off the bus on the main road and, after a few twists and turns, take a path across a rocky nature reserve before glimpsing the day’s field of dreams – Melita FC in Pembroke, venue for the MRL Dove Men+Care Championship grand final.

It’s a smart little stadium and when I arrive there’s a healthy crowd in. Then they all leave as the junior soccer session winds up on the pristine 3G pitch.

In search of company I take a seat in the glass-fronted clubhouse overlooking the pitch. “Best seats I’ve ever had for a grand final,” announces a new arrival. The accent is distinctively Australian.

Andrew is a Wests Tigers fan working in online gaming in Malta. We’re soon joined by Sonia Dorsett, also from Sydney’s west, who is visiting family in Rabat. Between the two of them the NRL gossip flows.

Sonia’s an official of the Windsor Wolves club down under and was in at the beginning of Malta RL when it was founded in Sydney. That team was an all-Australian outfit made up of players with Maltese heritage.

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Malta Origin defeated Sliema to land the trophy

To progress internationally the founders knew they had to take the game home. “So that’s when Choc packed up and came here,” says Sonia. That was in 2008. Choc is Anthony Micallef, organisational and social media dynamo, chief exec of Malta RL, and referee for today’s clash between Sliema RL and Malta Origin. He spends a large chunk of his free time working on the game and has big ambitions for Malta. He points out that while Malta is currently ranked 21st in the world that’s higher than any Maltese team in any sport has ever been.

Another couple in the bar turn out to be from near where Sonia lives in Sydney. Rugby league really is a small world. It gets a little smaller when I spot Gareth Barron leading the Malta Origin warm-up. I occasionally gave him a lift home when he was a Gateshead Thunder apprentice back in ’99.

Gareth, now well-travelled in rugby league, answered an online ad looking for someone to beef up the Malta Origin pack at the back end of the season. In the Maltese media he was billed as “the British enforcer”.

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The slightly unusual scene confronting goal-kickers at Melita FC

As the teams line-up it becomes obvious that a few compromises have had to be made to get the game on. The pitch has neither rugby posts, nor pitch markings. The try line is the front of the soccer six-yard box, supplemented by a line of brown parcel tape stuck across the width of the pitch. A goal is scored by getting the ball over the soccer bar and between two large green posts supporting the mesh that stops balls leaving the stadium.

Malta Origin kick-off, Sliema concede in the first minute. There are some good passages of play and Sliema are slick with ball in hand but can’t make their skill tell. Malta Origin are on top and lead 14-0 at half-time. Despite an early sin-binning for a high tackle the game is played with great enthusiasm and in good spirit.

Although it’s cooler than high summer the shade temperature is still 27 degrees and out on the pitch, where there is no shade, it’s warmer still. There are few concessions to the heat.

There’s a bit of a Sliema fightback in the third quarter before Origin romp away to a 46-10 win. With the Sliema defence tiring Barron, having played the full 80, completes a rare prop’s hat-trick. For Sliema it’s the end of a two-year unbeaten run. It’s fair to say they weren’t helped by losing eight regulars on the eve of the match.

Afterwards Sonia is called down from the stand to take on the role of visiting dignitary and present the trophy to winning skipper Joe Paolella. For the Origin boys there will be victory celebrations later in Paceville, Malta’s nightlife centre, but they can’t start until midnight. Many of the players have to attend a slightly sinister sounding “initiation” at their rugby union club first.

Meanwhile, there’s tidying up to be done and, still in his playing gear, the British enforcer is peeling the sticky tape off the pitch.

o Find out more at www.malteserugbyleague.com, www.facebook.com/maltaRL, or follow @maltaRL on Twitter

o This article originally appeared in Forty-20 magazine’s November 2013 issue: http://www.scratchingshedpublishing.com/magazine/

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