‘World Rugby want seven other Dubais,’ organisers say ahead of expanded 2023 Sevens

Nearly 5,000 players to participate in the multi-sport festival over National Day weekend

Simon Jelowitz, head of sport operations for Dubai sevens, alongside festival director and general manager Mathew Tait, right. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Organisers of the Emirates Dubai Sevens say the newly expanded tournament is the template for which World Rugby want to expand the appeal of the sport.

The competition will again be the first of the rebranded, eight-leg HSBC SVNS world series when it takes place from December 1-3.

The National Day weekend event will have another new sport added. In recent years netball, cricket and cross-fit competitions have joined what was a rugby-only event for the best part of 50 years. A padel tournament will take place for the first time this year.

According to Simon Jelowitz, the head of sport operations for the Sevens, Dubai is setting an example for other legs on the series to follow.

“World Rugby want seven other Dubais,” Jelowitz said. “That might sound a little big-headed, [but] they are saying that no longer can it just be a nine-hour festival of World Series rugby. There needs to be more about it.

“This model seems to be where World Rugby want to go. Hong Kong and Dubai are seen as the standard bearers for this kind of experience. Now the onus is on the other [tournaments] on the series doing that.”

There are nearly 5,000 players scheduled to take part across the sports, with 100,000 spectators expected to attend across the three days.

Rugby will still provide the largest number, with 2,916 to be involved. Netball will have 850, cricket 432, with 300 taking part in the fitness challenge and 250 in padel.

Jelowitz says the new sports have helped create a broader appeal. “Cricket, for example, is massive out here,” he said.

“It helps us become more culturally diverse. It encourages people who wouldn’t have had an association with the tournament to come in and participate.

“It is important for us to develop to show the wonderful cultural diversity of the city.”

Mathew Tait, the festival director and general manager of the Dubai Sevens, won the main tournament twice as a player with England back in 2004 and 2005.

Those competitions were rugby only, and played at a different venue altogether, at the old Dubai Exiles ground in Al Awir.

He says the event has responded to the growth of the UAE and the altered demographics of the city.

“We have to be cognisant of the fact Dubai has changed,” Tait said. “When I played in ’04 and ’05 Dubai was at the start of this unbelievable trajectory under the vision of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.

“The Sevens was pretty much the only party in town at the time. Now every weekend there are multiple things, so we have to look at iterating and changing.”

His two Dubai titles rank among the favourite career memories for Tait, who also played for England’s XVs side in the 2007 Rugby World Cup final.

He describes sevens as the “purest form” of the game, and says he would have happily stayed in it, were the financial conditions more agreeable.

“Candidly, there was no money in it,” Tait said. “If it had been the same money then maybe. I was lucky as a young man to be able to travel the world and see the sights, and I also managed to do that in XVs, too, albeit on a slightly bigger scale and with more stress.

“The thing about sevens is it is the game in its purest form, and those were the part of the game I enjoyed.

“There was pressure, yes, because you are driven to win and perform well. But there is not the same media scrutiny as when you are in XVs.

“I just really enjoyed it. There was a trip where we did Gold Coast, the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, a week in Bali, then the Hong Kong Sevens, and that is probably the fondest memory of my entire career.”

Updated: October 24, 2023, 11:50 AM