Dubai Rugby Sevens converts huge sporting event into major social occasion

The Dubai Rugby 7s has become one of the biggest sporting events in the Dubai calendar.

The Pie and Pint Pilgrims, a rugby team from the UK, have a practice session at the Meydan Beach Club in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
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DUBAI // Dubai Rugby Sevens has become one of the biggest sporting events on the emirate’s calendar.

It attracts some of the world’s top sportsmen and brings in legions of recreational and social players and supporters from across the globe.

Ben Darby, 38, founded a recreational team, the Pie and Pint Pilgrims, who are competing in their 11th Dubai sevens this year.

Over the years, they have had more than 50 players travel from the UK with them, including full-time professional players and former professionals.

What started as a supporters’ club has become a yearly tradition, bringing friends of all ages together as a rugby community.

“It’s a great opportunity for decent club players back in the UK to play on a world stage,” he said.

No player gets paid – the attraction is the camaraderie and experience of a competitive but fun environment.

The tournament has grown massively since its beginnings, moving in recent years to a new stadium with seven pitches.

The old stadium held a crowd of 25,000 but the new venue can accommodate 40,000, and there is a significant international television audience for the competition.

The Pie and Pint Pilgrims have also grown. It started as 10 players, the minimum required for a team before a change of rules allowed 12. On this trip there are 28 “pilgrims”.

“What I’ve always loved about Dubai rather than the other host countries for the sevens, is that social sides like us play alongside the international teams,” Darby said. “If you go to somewhere like Hong Kong, it’s only the international teams playing.”

Charles Mayhew, another of the group’s founding members, believes the event boosts tourism.

“For many of our lads it’s their only holiday but it brings 40,000 spectators from around the world, in addition to those coming locally,” he said.

Alex Foster, 27, a semi-professional player for Ireland’s rugby league team, is competing in his fifth Dubai Sevens.

“It’s probably the world’s biggest invitational event so it’s pretty cool to play this,” he said. “The rugby is brilliant but on top of that, you’ve got the social aspect and it’s a good few days to enjoy yourself as well as being a great tour.”

He said the event had changed many people’s perspective of Dubai.

“People realise it’s much more accessible than they thought and not as strict as they had perceived it to be,” he said.

“They don’t think of it as a place to come and play rugby and have such a fun event as this.”

This year will be Dan Batstone’s first sevens with the team. The 23-year-old said that since arriving on Monday, the city had exceeded his expectations.

“People always think it’s a place full of rules,” he said. “My friends had always had such a good time here before though, that I wanted to see it for myself.”

He admitted he was nervous about the tournament because it was due to be televised live in the UK.

Craig Gibson, a player for and chairman of Dubai’s Xodus Wasps, said they had three teams – two male and one female – in this weekend’s competition.

Others in the squad are playing on international teams, while some have been sponsored to play on invitational teams.

“It’s good for a range of players, everyone from the recreational player to those of the highest calibre,” Gibson said. “It’s competitive but also it’s a real community event where people can bring their families. And it also brings the international rugby community together.”

Eight UAE school rugby teams are competing in the first UAE national schools tournament this year.

Qais Al Dhalai, secretary general of the UAE Rugby Federation Player Pathway Programme, which is helping to expand rugby in the country, said the event would “be a fantastic occasion for all involved with UAE rugby”.