Five key questions facing UAE rugby as it charts a new course

Paul Radley examines five of the most pressing questions facing rugby in the UAE as the new domestic season approaches
The UAE national rugby team training at the Centre for Excellence at Jebel Ali in Dubai on April 15, 2014. Sarah Dea / The National
The UAE national rugby team training at the Centre for Excellence at Jebel Ali in Dubai on April 15, 2014. Sarah Dea / The National

The sporting season is only a brief one for those who count rugby as their pastime of choice.

It has been six and a half months since the majority of rugby players in this country last made a tackle in anger.

Most will get just 15 matches of competitive XVs rugby between now and March – and that is if they stay injury-free and are selected each week.

Given the outlay for annual playing membership at some rugby clubs in the UAE can reach Dh2,000, game time is extremely precious.

Is everyone getting the best deal? Is the game benefiting? Here are five questions facing the sport in the Middle East as the new season gets underway.

Will the league help the national team?

That is surely the point of any domestic-league structure, right? To pit the best available players together to feed the national team?

Not in the UAE. For far too long, the domestic game has had an entirely negligible relationship with the representative team it is supposed to service.

For example, barely any of the key protagonists behind Jebel Ali Dragons’ treble win last year bothered with national-team duty at season’s end.

Sure, some leading players are not eligible, but there are many who are. Maybe it was due to the fact that last season was a dead duck for international rugby.

Just one Test match, which ended in defeat to Singapore, then relegation, is not much to get players motivated.

Yet the availability black hole has been a chronic problem.

At the end of this season, the UAE will be playing in Division Two of the Asian Rugby Championship, the newly revamped version of the Asian Five Nations.

That represents the third tier of continental competition. Not that long ago, the national team were the third-best among all the Asian nations.

They will never reach such heady heights again unless the leading players from the league are coaxed back into the representative fold.

Will Emiratis be involved?

It would be a crime to infer that expatriates do not want to see Emiratisation succeed in rugby. Most people passionately do.

Even players whose prospects of an international call-up and a tour are hindered by the promotion into the squad of novice Emiratis in their stead want to help.

Long-serving UAE sevens representatives, such as Steve Smith and Sean Hurley, have been left dejected at not being empowered to help. That hurts more than the fact they are not invited to play anymore.

Another, Murray Strang, who represented UAE sevens with great distinction in the past, tweeted his good wishes when the rookie Emirati side competed at a sevens tournament recently.

“Good luck to the UAE squad for this weekend’s Malaysia leg of the series,” he wrote. “Brings us back some results lads!”

With such goodwill prevalent everywhere, this summer’s impasse over getting Emirati players enrolled in domestic clubs was ugly.

The UAE Rugby Federation believes Emirati players should have their membership subscriptions fully subsidised.

The federation was happy to look after 80 per cent of the fees, if the clubs met the remaining 20 per cent. All clubs except for Arabian Knights baulked at the idea. Players paying full fare are having trouble securing playing time already.

“We got the feeling they had enough [players], or even too many, and that they were struggling to service them without adding more,” Roelof Kotze, the UAE performance manager, said at a pre-season briefing.

Should there be more teams?

This is not easy to answer. The powers that be – and not just the current rulers of the sport in this region – have never managed to find a competition structure that keeps all people happy all of the time.

The six-week UAE Premiership is short and highly competitive.

What it does mean, though, is the clubs from elsewhere in the region have to make do with the crumbs.

Last season, the Gulf Premiership consisted of just three teams – Doha, Bahrain and Muscat. There were six months of summer, followed by four matches of XVs rugby, then another two-month gap until it all started again after Christmas with the Gulf Top Six. No wonder they felt dissatisfied.

No surprise, then, that they lobbied for an eight- or 10-team, pan-Gulf competition, which would last the full duration of the season, this time around. But the idea was batted back.

Rugby in the Middle East was founded on Friday cross-border away days, with all the adventure that entails.

Yet the expansion of the sport – with far greater numbers of clubs in the UAE in particular now than in the early days – has made it very difficult to perpetuate, given the strain on time and finances.

The extra travel is a genuine problem for clubs who survive on shoestring budgets in an area where even the costs of staging home games are prohibitive.

The last time there was more overseas travel, even a club of the size and prestige as the Dragons had to forfeit some away fixtures. That was what predicated the change.

Is the 2018 Sevens World Cup bid feasible?

This barely seemed like a big deal at all. At a media briefing two weeks ago, it was mentioned as an addendum to the real big news that the UAE Schools tournament at December’s Dubai Sevens will culminate with a final on Pitch 1.

Any other news? Just, you know, we are going to make a bid for the 2018 Sevens World Cup. Nothing special.

Could Dubai make a success of staging the abridged version’s World Cup? Of course it could. That is as much of a sure thing as you get in sport.

By 2018 – two years after the first Olympic sevens event – the World Cup tournament itself will really be struggling for context.

So it will need to be staged somewhere with a guaranteed appetite for sevens. Nowhere does that better – bar Hong Kong – than Dubai.

A couple of things could count against a successful bid, though, when the winners are announced at the start of next year.

The International Rugby Board wants to stage it in August, which would not be possible here, given the weather.

And the fact that Dubai staged the four-yearly event in 2009 would also reflect adversely on the sport, suggesting only a few places are up to it.

“Although we are a small team of staff, we have big dreams,” said Qais Al Dhalai, the secretary general of the UAE federation.

“We are working very hard to meet people’s expectations.”

Can anyone catch the Dragons?

It seems odd to think Jebel Ali’s finest were regarded as the perennial bridesmaids of domestic rugby less than two years ago. They always had the best player roster, yet were allergic to finals.

Back-to-back trebles have entirely inverted that wisdom. Now, where “stage fright” used to be written, it reads, “invincible”.

Their success was overseen by two different head coaches, first Shane Thornton, then Ross Mills.

Now they have had another change at the top, with a set of senior players looking after the coaching, instead.

Amateur sport often works best that way, so expect them to be at least as strong as before now that Sean Crombie, Strang and Michael Lewis are bringing their expertise to bear.

So what of the rest? Mills has taken the coaching reins at Hurricanes, the side Dragons beat in the last UAE Premiership final to start their tilt at the treble.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins, five times runners-up in major competitions in the past two seasons, will see the gap between them and their city rivals Saracens shortened still further. Not least since their captain, Billy Graham, has opted out of playing because of work commitments.

Dubai Exiles and Xodus Wasps Dubai were on the outside looking in when the Gulf Top Six started this year.

The fall of Exiles, in particular, out of the region’s elite was a tough one to take for the country’s oldest club.

Whether they can reclaim their place among the establishment this time around remains to be seen.

“Although we have had good numbers attending, we do have a couple of positions where we need some more players,” said Jan Venter, the Exiles coach.

“But the players believe in themselves and are committed to be a force to be reckoned with in UAE rugby.”

Follow us on Twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: September 19, 2014 04:00 AM


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