UAE-raised duo eye 'dream' return to Dubai Sevens in women's world series with Belgium

Former Dubai schoolgirls Femke Soens and Louka Blommaert look ahead to qualification-deciding tournament in Madrid

Louka Blommaert, right, started out with Dubai Hurricanes and now represents Belgium sevens. Courtesy World Rugby
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A pair of former Dubai schoolgirls hope to book a return to the city later this year as players on the sevens world series after their Belgium side reached the qualification decider.

Femke Soens and Louka Blommaert grew up playing rugby on the fields of the UAE. Now they are housemates in Brussels and teammates in the Belgian national sevens team.

At the weekend they helped their side secure a place in the top four of the Sevens Challenger Series, after finishing third at a tournament in Krakow.

It meant Belgium qualified for the final event of the HSBC SVNS campaign, which is how the competition previously known as the Sevens World Series was rebranded this season.

Belgium will now enter an eight-team competition at the season-ending tournament in Madrid at the start of next month.

That will give them a shot at playing in the top-tier series next season – and so a place in the Dubai Sevens in November.

“That would be insane and a dream come true,” Blommaert, who lived in Dubai from when she was six months old, said of the prospect of returning as a world series player.

“Every time the Sevens was on, we would watch the world series matches and say, ‘Imagine if this was us one day.’ If we were to do that next year, it would be crazy.”

Both players already know what it is like to play on Pitch 1 at a packed-out Sevens.

Blommaert was given special dispensation by Belgium to play for Dubai Hurricanes, her childhood club, last year while she was recuperating from injury.

It meant she was able to play in the same side as her mother, Elke Vinck, who is a former international judoka turned rugby player, in a Hurricanes side who reached the final.

“I asked if I could play with my mum, which I had been planning to do for some time, and they agreed because I was just getting back into it [after a shoulder injury],” Blommaert said.

Soens won the Gulf Under 18s Girls tournament in consecutive years in 2021 and 2022 with Dubai College.

She left the city, where she had lived since she was 18 months old, last year with a view to spending a year travelling before returning to further studies.

However, she settled in Brussels, became immersed in club rugby, and then became part of Belgium’s senior sevens set up.

Coincidentally, the first tournament of the three-leg Challenger Series – which is the feeder competition for the world series – brought her straight back to where rugby had started for her, earlier this year.

Physically, I needed to grow a little bit in the months leading up to Dubai
Femke Soens

She had only recently spent Christmas with her parents and brother in Dubai, the first time she had returned since leaving in June, then came back with the Belgium side for the tournament in January.

“It felt strange not being here on holiday,” said Soens, who had played age-group rugby for Belgium while still living in Dubai.

“I was here to play, not visit family, or do the rounds of meeting everybody.

“That was quite a big mental switch. I enjoyed the familiarity of the scenery, but it was also slightly daunting that I knew so many people there.

“It is part of the game, and it was nice that so many people had come to support. But it definitely added a bit of extra stress to my first match.”

Being pitched straight into the team for that first match in Dubai was a shock for Soens, for a variety of reasons.

She terms the whole experience of playing with Belgium a “total culture change.” She had not played senior women’s rugby before leaving the UAE.

Club rugby in Belgium is XVs rather than sevens, which again was totally new to her and Blommaert.

The team is all French speaking. And then there is the fact the duo are playing alongside players they used to sit and watch when Belgium travelled for the invitational competitions at the Dubai Sevens in the past.

“Louka and I used to show up together and watch them train,” Soens said. “It is insane to think that we now both play with them.”

Despite their youth, inexperience, and relative lack of physical conditioning compared to their teammates, Soens thinks she and Blommaert had a good grounding in the sport in the UAE.

“Playing touch [representing Middle East Touch internationally] helped a lot, as did only playing sevens rugby,” said Soens, who plans to study nursing alongside playing rugby in the future.

“Physically, I needed to grow a little bit in the months leading up to Dubai, but in terms of the game situation I don’t think that is something I needed to be taught. I fitted in well.

“I only played U18s in Dubai and going into women’s was a jump I would have liked to have made earlier.

“We have a lot of competitions within the group and I would love to get my bench press up. It is about trusting the process, and we have had a lot of support coming from the U18s to make sure we are physically ready.”

Updated: May 22, 2024, 6:53 AM