Malta primed for Sevens
By ANTHONY MICALLEF
THE fledgling governing body for Maltese Rugby League will return to the Coramba Sportsground for the 2006 Orara Valley Sevens tournament with only one main concern.
One year stronger, on the back of a successful groundbreaking tour to the Maltese Islands where locals took in the novelty of a sport previously unknown to the Mediterranean island nation and with the addition of a number of fresh and upcoming faces to their impressive playing roster; the Malta Knights return to Orara Valley primed to put up an admirable challenge for the $10,000 first prize.
Malta have plenty of reasons to make a return to the Orara Sevens.
It may have been the welcoming nature of the Coffs Harbour locals or that of the helpful committee of the Orara Valley Axemen Rugby League Club.
Then there was Hollywood celebrity Russell Crowe's pose in the 'Malta' rugby league jersey prior to their quarter final clash against the Sydney Metro Aboriginal All-stars and the unanticipated fourth placing in their inaugural Sevens tournament.
Maltese Rugby League Association (MRLA) chairman Michael Borg is adamant the snowball effect of success in the MRLA's historic first years within Australia is a major lever in controlling the future of rugby league on the Maltese islands.
"It is the major factor," Borg said.
"Due to mass migration from the 1950's onwards, there are thousands of Maltese or people with Maltese descent living in Australia, thus as a result practically every Maltese has a relative living in Australia and has strong connections with Australia. "The success of the Australian-based MRLA made up of Maltese-Australians are passionate about the game of Rugby League and keen to promote the game in Malta itself is vital to the establishment of Rugby League in Malta."
Last year, the Malta Knights commenced their 'sevens' proceedings by gaining maximum points on the first day, before knocking out one of the tournament favourites, Fiji.
Parramatta Eels SG Ball head coach and Malta Knights mentor Joe Grima describes the win as a major boost in belief for the Maltese team.
"It was important - all the talk was about the Fijians and when we (Malta) put our hearts into it, we came out trumps. The Fijians were really disappointed and we used that."
MRLA chairman Michael Borg attests it's not only the players that rate Joe Grima as a passionate and innovative coach and backs the Malta Knights instructor to take them all the way in 2006, which would be a welcome monetary boost to the rugby league body on the Maltese islands itself.
"Absoloutely, Joe is one of the most passionate people you will ever come across," Borg said.
"He's developed a good rapport with the players and as a result the squad that went to last year's sevens had good camaraderie and simply went to enjoy themselves in a carnival atmosphere that is the Orara Valley Sevens.
"A non-profit and voluntary organisation such as ours would use the much-needed funds to direct towards development of the game in Malta."
Malta eventually bowed out of the race for last year's first prize after a golden point second half try which saw Malta go down 36-32, after Malta led 32-18 a minute into the second half of normal time.
Nevertheless, the new boys on the block gained a whole lot of support from their inaugural appearance at the tournament, as well as experience that will see them return to Australia's richest 'sevens' tournament with their eyes on nothing but the silverware and prize money on up for grabs on the Sunday afternoon, but coach Joe Grima is reserved in his expectations.
"The competition is going to be much stronger this year than last, I'm not going into the tournament expecting to qualify for the Sunday (finals) games," Grima said.
"We've got plenty of speed and enthusiasm in what is a youthful side yet we're going up there with a lot of supporters.
"In having some fun, we're going to display the skills and sportsmanship of the Malta Knights (MRLA)' tells Grima."
The Maltese side won't be led by Grima all weekend however, with Grima handing over the Saturday duties to assistant coach Tony Farr, due to Grima's commitments with Parramatta Eels.
Farr has been on the coaching panel from day one of the MRLA's venture and recently added to his already sparkling resume, a pioneering tour to Malta where Malta defeated the England Lionhearts 36-6 at the Marsa Stadium in Malta.
A well-respected figure within rugby league circles up to the highest level for the past 25 years, Farr will guide the young Maltese chargers through their day one pool matches.
Equal top point scorer from last year's tournament, Parramatta Eels' Simon Micallef will return again to represent Malta, as will 2005 player of the tournament and ex-NRL star, Malta Knights skipper Ben Sammut.
While the Eastern Australian state of NSW is well represented with Maltese talent, Queensland doesn't go unnamed with Mackay Brothers' Brendan Russell and Burleigh Bears' Paul Marzella forming part of the backbone in Malta's back line that boasts an array of youth and speed that will key up with a wise but mobile pack of forwards that includes Wests Magpies premier league forward Pat Galea.
Debutants in the red and white kit of the Malta Knights are Nathan Attard and Jarrod Sammut, both products of the Penrith Panthers junior rugby league nursery.