Al Ain ready to tackle Gulf's best

The Emirates League leaders will be five points closer to winning the division tonight and will be able to make the choice soon of playing in the Prosperity Premiership.

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DUBAI // The day when the powers-that-be at Al Ain Amblers will have to decide whether to accept promotion to the top flight of regional rugby has moved a step closer. The thriving Emirates League leaders will be five points closer to winning the division tonight, after Sharjah Wanderers pulled out of today's fixture, thus handing them a bonus point victory.

Should they finish the season in first place, they would be entitled - though not obliged - to play in the Arabian Gulf Prosperity Premiership next term. Playing in the top level of regional rugby can be a mixed blessing. Regular cross-border competition places a substantial financial burden on amateur clubs, while the players also have work commitments and, depending on their nationalities, visa issues to consider.

The problems have been graphically emphasised by the number of matches which have been cancelled this season. For example, Kuwait Nomads, the club Al Ain would most likely replace in the top flight, are said to be one more forfeit away from being suspended from Gulf competition. Even Dubai Dragons, a club who regularly attracted 50 players to pre-season training sessions and had eyed a Premiership title challenge, have had problems.

After suffering a spate of injuries on their way to becoming Gulf champions at the Dubai Rugby Sevens last month, they were then forced to pull out of their ensuing league match in Kuwait. However, Al Ain would be keen to accept the challenge, according to Jimmy Carter, the club chairman. "We have been asked in the last couple of seasons whether we would want to go and play in the Premiership," he said.

"Until this season, we haven't really had the depth of squad to guarantee 22 players who would be able to travel away. "When you go to Qatar, Bahrain, Muscat and Kuwait a number of players, the South Africans and Fijians, won't get visas. "A lot of our players are from those nations, so previously, we have struggled to commit to it. But this year is different, we have more players, almost enough for a second team."

Results suggest the club have already outgrown the Emirates League. They beat the Arabian Potbellies 93-0 last weekend, and thus maintained their perfect league record. The one blot, a tight home defeat against the newest club in Gulf rugby, Toa Dubai, was subsequently reversed by the union following an administrative error by Toa. With players of the calibre of Tui Raeli, the former Wellington Hurricanes winger, and Scott McCready, a rugby newcomer who won a Super Bowl while playing in the NFL for the New England Patriots, they would be confident of holding their own in a higher division.

Crucially, their clubhouse at the Palm Sports Resort in Al Ain, which also houses a netball club, health centre and swimming pool, is the envy of the majority of larger clubs anywhere in the Gulf. "We certainly would not expect our players to fund overseas trips," said Carter. "If we were going to go up we would rely on our sponsors heavily "We are lucky that we bring in a lot of revenue through the season, and the Palm Sports Resort help us out with funding costs like transport, knowing that we are able to justify that. We are very fortunate.

"Ideally we can maintain our player roster, and ideally add to it so that we can have one team in the top division and another in the second next season." In the Premiership this afternoon, the leading players from Dubai Exiles and Dubai Hurricanes will get the latest chance to impress Arabian Gulf selectors when they meet at The Sevens. Abu Dhabi Harlequins will seek to maintain their title charge when they welcome Doha to Al Ghazal.