‘They’re gladiators, not players’: First all-Arab Dubai Sevens women’s match ends in draw

Syria’s Al Arabi held to 10-10 tie by Emirati side Al Maha in historic fixture at Emirates Dubai Sevens

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Their first try scorer is nicknamed “Sonic” because of her speed. They know their coach as the “Arab Portia Woodman”. And the team’s founder just reckons they are all “gladiators”.

The fact they were reliant on a missed conversion to earn them a draw in their first match at an Emirates Dubai Sevens hardly mattered. They were every bit deserving of a share the spoils in the first ever all-Arab women’s game at the Sevens.

Al Arabi are making history this weekend as the first female side from Syria to play in the Middle East’s longest running rugby festival.

It was fitting that they should face Al Maha, the trailblazing Emirati team, in their opening fixture in the Gulf Women’s tournament. It finished 10-10, and they are thrilled to be on the scoreboard.

“To get a draw in our first game is a very beautiful feeling, and we are super excited. This is an honour for us,” Roushana Mrad, the Al Arabi captain, said.

“People might not know there is a lot of conflict in our country. We have a lot of struggles economically, and we don’t even have a playground to play on.

“We started from zero. We only had 10 days to practice. And now here we are. We want to show that the Syrian ladies team is resilient.”

Fair to say, they have had many obstacles to overcome, from playing in a conflict zone, to going without the basics. They play on a football field now, but their introduction to the sport was on concrete.

“We were waiting so much time for someone who was travelling to get us a ball,” said Basel Halabi, the team’s founder.

“When we first started the team we had three balls – one size three, one size four, and one official size. For three months we only trained with two of those.

“Everything was impacting the growth of the game, but for me they are soldiers, not players – gladiators, to be specific. They are survivors.

“We are trying to spread this game. We want it to go viral.”

Their opposition are every bit a triumph for hope over adversity, too. The Emirati female programme has been UAE Rugby’s finest achievement to date.

They are rightly celebrated, too. During the half time interval in their game, an advert for one of the tournament sponsors flashed up on the bigscreen on Pitch 2.

It shows the Emirati players in rugby training, and carries the stirring tagline: “Becoming the heroes they never had.”

It is a sentiment the Syrians echo. “These players are going to be a great inspiration,” said Nour Issa, the manager of the Al Arabi team who was draped in the Syrian flag throughout the game.

Alyamama Abo Ras, who is nicknamed in reference to Sonic the Hedgehog, had the honour of touching down Al Arabi’s first try. It met with the approval of coach Ragha Abo Ammar.

Ammar is said to be the Arab version of Woodman-Wickliffe, the New Zealand wing who was the women’s sevens player of the last decade, and will be here with New Zealand in the world series event this weekend.

As a professional basketball player back in Syria, she has opted to coach rather than play this weekend.

She was the first female player in Syria. She introduced it to the likes of captain Mrad, and she hopes the sport can continue to grow among females in their country.

“I saw a Facebook post about rugby by Basel and was interested in what it looked like," Ammar said.

“I started searching about the game, and I fell in love with it. Even when I am playing basketball I want to tackle people. I really love it.”

Updated: December 02, 2023, 3:23 AM