Age-group players take centre stage at HSBC Rugby Festival Dubai

More than 3,000 participants and 252 teams will compete at The Sevens this weekend

Dubai Exiles Under-18 girls team during practice at The Sevens in Dubai. Victor Besa / The National
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The Dubai Sevens might unquestionably be the largest festival for rugby in the Middle East, and one of the biggest anywhere in the world.

But, less than two months after South Africa carried off that title, the same site is set to be taken over by another enormous rugby event.

This weekend, more than 3,000 participants and 252 teams will compete in the HSBC Rugby Festival Dubai at The Sevens. For the majority of mini and youth players in the region, including players from Under 5 to U18, it represents the pinnacle of the season.

When the tournament started in 2008, it was staged at the Habtoor Polo Club as the new headquarters for rugby in the region was still being constructed.

The Dubai Exiles, the host club, had seen their old ground at Al Awir swallowed up by redevelopment, and were waiting to move into the new site on the Al Ain Road.

In the 16 years since, the HSBC festival has become established as the one to win for junior sevens players.

“This feels like the Sevens but for clubs,” said Aydia Coetzee, whose Exiles side are targeting success in the U18 girls tournament on Sunday.

Age-group players generally opt to play for their schools rather than club teams at the Dubai Sevens. Coetzee, for example, was representing DESC in that event back at the start of December. For the HSBC festival, though, they are reunited with their club sides.

“It is a good opportunity for the girls to reconnect again after separating for that tournament, where we picked schools over clubs,” said Coetzee, who has represented UAE at age-group level on tours of Taiwan and Nepal.

“It brings us together for the league finals, and it is an amazing opportunity for us to play together and represent the Exiles.”

The vast number of players in action this weekend points to a junior game in good health. Since 2011, the UAE Rugby’s player pathway programme has seen nearly 150,000 Emirati school children introduced to the sport, with 370 schools participating.

In the junior game in general in the country, there is currently a split of 59 per cent male against 41 per cent female.

Coetzee was herself a netball player until 2014, when she opted to switch to rugby.

“My brother was playing tag [rugby], and I was bored with what I was doing on the netball court. Watching him play was more exciting so I joined,” she said.

“I’m South African, so watching rugby is basically what we do. But not all girls play in South Africa. It was introduced at my school and they invited us to come along one Friday. I have loved it ever since.

“I always found it a surprise, considering the majority of our team are from South Africa, that girls don’t tend to play it back at home.

“It was the contact that I loved – it is the fitness that puts me off. I love it. It is so exciting to run into people.”

Gabi Seru, Coetzee’s Exiles teammate, is also originally from another rugby-obsessed country, Fiji.

Her father played for the Exiles for the best part of a decade after the family relocated to Dubai, but she says he took some persuading to let her play.

“I had always been trying to convince my dad to let me play rugby,” Seru said.

“I started with netball first for the Exiles in 2018. After that I decided I didn’t want to play that anymore, I want to play rugby.

“He said, ‘No, it’s too dangerous.’ I tried again another day, in the car saying, ‘Can I play rugby? It will only be with girls.’

“He warmed to it, then one Thursday evening, he said, ‘Get ready, we are going training – for rugby.’ I was like, ‘What? No way. What do I have to do, what do I have to pack?’

“I think he accepted that, playing with girls my age, we’ll have similar strengths, so I won’t get so many injuries.”

Seru takes her role models from both the women’s – New Zealand’s Michaela Blyde – and men’s – Argentine duo Marcos Moneta and Luciano Gonzalez – game.

She is hopeful her Exiles side can bridge the gap on Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who won the Sevens in fine style in December.

“For the team, it is the second biggest tournament after the Sevens,” Seru said.

“We are aiming to make the cup final and give our best in every game we play. Our team are still coming up, and the side we are putting into HSBC, we haven’t played together yet this season.

“They have been on and off playing for their schools, and haven’t wanted to risk injury for the Sevens. This will probably be the first time we are playing together as a team.”

The players will also be out to impress Danielle Waterman, the England great, who will attend this weekend as a guest of HSBC.

“The HSBC Rugby Festival Dubai has held true to its vision of inspiring the next generation of rugby players, with around 3,000 young girls and boys participating in nearly 700 games last year, as the sport continues to open up a world of opportunity for them,” said Simon Calder, the deputy chief executive of the tournament’s sponsors.

Updated: January 26, 2024, 4:44 AM