DUBAI // The driver of the school bus never stood a chance. As if trying to navigate Dubai's roads with a busload of Under 12s was not challenging enough, now they were each armed with a new toy: a mini rugby ball. They might as well have plied them with a vat-load of E-numbers and been done with it.
Asian rugby chiefs, with the assistance of HSBC, are in the midst of a drive to promote the game among new audiences. Their "coaching doctor" Frank Hadden, the former Scotland head coach, is on a stopover in the UAE, during a three-month whistle-stop tour of the continent in which he is spreading the word about the game. Yesterday, it was the turn of 50 Emirati children from the Al Ahmadiya and Mohammed Noor schools in Dubai to get their first taste of the oval ball game.
Even though rugby has been entrenched on the Gulf sporting scene for more than 40 years, relatively few Arabs play the game. However, Hadden, on yesterday's evidence, sees no reason why the sport should not flourish among the native population. "Rugby is not just about bashing into people," he said, although the way his latest proteges went bounding out of the Sallahudeen Sports Hall in Deira, pelting each other with their new squidgy rugby balls as they went, it is one of the main attractions.
"There are also core values inherent in the game itself which are brilliant tools for learning. It is a fantastic team game because it is for all shapes and sizes." Hadden was assisted during his coaching clinic by Ghaith Jalajel and Taif al Delamie, two Arab nationals. Both will be playing international rugby this weekend. Jalajel, the Gulf's Arabic-speaking rugby development officer, will line up at hooker for Jordan when they meet Lebanon for the first time in an international match, at The Sevens, Dubai.
That fixture is a curtain-raiser for the main event, the Arabian Gulf's final HSBC Asian Five Nations match, against Korea. Al Delamie, an Omani national, is the lone Arab in the Gulf team, who can secure their place in Asian rugby's top division if they beat the Koreans. "The Asian Five Nations has been a catalyst at both ends of the game," added Hadden, who was in charge of the Scottish national team until last year. "The elite players at the top end get tough competition, where they can test themselves and fulfil their potential.
"There is also grassroots going on in tandem with it. It gives us the chance to sell the game to a new audience. "I think here, for example, the kid are bigger than in the Far East. There were some good physical specimens and their ball-handling skills were excellent. They were quite clearly athletic. "There is no doubt they can play rugby, and no reason why kids all over the world can't play it."
Emirati children will be able to aspire to play for the UAE from now on. The Arabian Gulf union will be disbanded from its present form at the end of this year, and tomorrow's match against Korea will be the last as a collective GCC side. "It will certainly be mentioned in the pre-match talks that this will be the last time we are playing for the Gulf," said al Delamie, the centre. "We are devastated that is the case. Not just this last month, but the whole of Gulf rugby has been an amazing experience for everyone involved." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org