Doha’s rugby players could scarcely have been handed a tougher assignment on their long-awaited return to West Asia Premiership rugby this weekend.
The side from Qatar will be playing in the competition for the first time in six years when they face Bahrain on Friday.
On the field, their opposition will present a formidable enough challenge. Bahrain are the reigning champions of West Asia and have established themselves as the region’s premier force in rugby in the time since Doha have been away.
Even before a ball is kicked, there will be challenges. Doha and Bahrain played home and away friendly matches earlier this year to test the logistics of travel between the two countries.
The long history of Gulf rugby has always provided tests for the away team, given the vagaries of cross border travel. All the more so in the recent past.
Doha were left off the fixture list because of the geo-political climate in the GCC in 2017.
When they were ready to return, rugby was essentially ceased for everyone because of Covid 19.
So long has their absence been, few in Doha will remember what it was like to travel regularly to play the best in West Asia rugby.
Tim Newnham was still playing for the team the last time they were in the competition. Now aged 40, he is the club’s chairman, and has thus been tasked with plotting the side’s return to this point.
Discussions about a return have been taking place for two years, and now it is about to happen.
“We didn’t want to enter the league if we couldn’t complete all our fixtures because that is not fair on everyone,” Newnham said.
When Doha were initially kept out of Gulf competition back in 2017, they offset it by playing fixtures outside the GCC, including in Europe.
Covid was a significantly greater problem though. They received no reduction in rent from the landowner of their home ground.
With no way to cover the costs because restricted movement during the pandemic meant they could not use the facility anyway, they were forced to move.
“As a committee we worked out that, if we could not get rent relief, we would be bankrupt within seven or eight months,” Newnham said.
“We couldn’t open the club so we had no income. Obviously, nobody having been alive during a pandemic previously, we didn’t know what to do. We bit the bullet and left the club.”
They have a new sponsor and investor assisting with a plan to build a new club. The focus of Qatar’s sports administration on football’s World Cup meant the construction has been delayed. They have therefore been renting fields at Doha Sports Park instead.
It has all come with a financial burden. At the point they exited Gulf rugby in 2017, the club had an enviable pool of players, some of whom were employed in rugby development and coaching roles.
The resources are not the same now, but Newnham is hopeful the future is even brighter than what went before.
“We are not the same organisation the last time when we were in the WAP with full-time employees and development officers,” he said.
“But that is obviously where we aim to be. That is our five-year plan. We hope to break ground on our new facility this year, and we hope to get to where we were before, but more so.”
The plot for their new home is twice the size of their previous one, meaning they could expand their membership from 1,800-2,000, as it was previously, to as much as 3,500-4,000.
Their return restores the top-flight to seven teams, with Dubai Hurricanes also returning after a season in the second tier. That means five trips to the UAE for Doha.
Fixture scheduling is always a fraught business, but all the more so now given the UAE clubs have a different weekend to them.
Doha have been requesting to stage their trip to the UAE on Fridays, as was the case last time they featured in this competition.
“Generally, UAE teams want to play their game on a Saturday, which is still a weekend for us,” Newnham said.
“When we are hosting, that is easy for us, we don’t mind doing that. If we can play our games on a Friday, that helps with post-game.
“If on a Saturday we are returning home at 12.30-1am, and players have to work in five hours’ time, it is not ideal.”