Malta hoping to grow rugby league with Emerging Nations win

Malta's Tyler Cassel looks to slip a pass during the group stage clash with Niue. David Axisa / Malta Rugby League

While Australia and New Zealand are warming up in Auckland for their rugby league Test, teams representing Malta and Niue will be running onto St Marys Leagues Stadium for the Emerging Nations World Championships Cup Final.

The final is the culmination of a two-week tournament involving teams representing Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Malta, Niue, Philippines, Poland, Solomon Islands, Turkey and Vanuatu. It was designed to develop international rugby league, with the ultimate aim being to grow two or three nations to a level where they can win their way through World Cup qualification to join the well-established teams on the big stage.

Malta is coached by Aaron MacDonald, a full-time school teacher who has coached at NSW Cup and Harold Matthews Cup level before falling into the role with Malta following a light-hearted social media exchange. It is a labour of love for both he and his players, all of whom have paid their own way to the tournament.

The team is built largely from Australian players with Maltese heritage. They all have one thing in common - they are playing with a deep-seated pride in Malta, something that MacDonald says can be seen in the families that come to support the team.

"One of the big things for me is seeing their families and how proud their families are of them. A lot of these players are heritage players, so they're second and third generation Maltese, whose grandparents immigrated here and a lot of them are pulling on their jerseys for their grandparents. It adds an extra bit of pride and honour in their jersey," MacDonald tells ESPN.

Malta won their way to the final with a gutsy performance against Hungary in the semifinal, while the undefeated Niue managed to beat Greece. The two finalists met during the group stage where Niue ran out 26-16 victors. MacDonald thinks his team has what it takes to turn that result around.

"They're a really tough side, a Pacific Island nation, with some really big boys and some experienced players in the side who certainly know what they're doing - I imagine they're going in as favourites. But, I'm confident that if we play to our potential and stick to a game plan that we can beat them," he said..

"Defence is one of our biggest strengths. In the semifinal we scored some points early and then defended really well for 60 minutes. That was a real test for us, with a limited preparation, just the fact that they were able to fight for each other and display the brotherhood that has developed within the team. If we defend that well again, then we will win."

MacDonald hopes to have an ace up his sleeve come Saturday, with former Penrith first grade back Jarrod Sammut flying in from London, where he has just completed a season with the London Broncos. Sammut was named in the Malta squad at the beginning of the tournament with the hope that he could arrive in time to play a part. He will add a lot of polish to the Malta's backline as they look to overcome the power of the big Niue players.

"There is still a 50 percent chance that he won't play, but we are certainly trying hard and he is trying hard from his end to make sure that he is available for us," MacDonald said.

MacDonald hopes a tournament victory will give his team the extra exposure it needs in order to grow. In Malta, league and union battle for prominence, with some players representing their country in both codes. Maltese-based competitions have struggled to capture the national attention, something this tournament could turn around.

"I had a message last night from a local newspaper in Malta, wanting some questions answered. Winning will give us bit more momentum in the home land and lead to a few extra Test matches for these developing nations, which will grow the stature of the game," he said.

"We're looking at qualifying for the Rugby League World Cup after the next one."

The final kicks off at 3:55pm on Saturday, with a healthy crowd expected to see the Emerging Nations World Championships Cup winners crowned.

In concert with the Emerging Nations tournament there has been a similar competition for nations in the very early stages of their rugby league development. The Confederations Cup has been run with teams representing regions including Africa, South East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

It is all part of a long process to grow and strengthen rugby league internationally.