Gulf rugby has an eye on the future

The local sport gets a glimpse of the future, but the UAE's expectations are modest as they play in Sri Lanka Sevens.

Al AIN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð Nov 20 : Khalid Helal from Arabian Gulf team during the rugby match between Arabian Gulf 1 vs Exiles 1 at Al Ain Rugby ground in Al Ain. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Sports. Story by Paul Radley
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But UAE expectations modest as they play in Sri Lanka Sevens tomorrow, writes Paul Radley

Gulf rugby will get a glimpse of the future this weekend when the newly formed UAE Rugby Association (UAE RA) pitch a side including Emirati players into international competition for the first time.

The UAE representative side's ambitions on the field will be modest when they begin their campaign at the Sri Lanka Sevens tomorrow.

They have been drawn in a group with the two giants of Asian rugby, Japan and Kazakhstan, and a Samoa side fine-tuning their preparations ahead of their defence of the IRB world series.

However, the significance of their participation extends far beyond the touchline.

Rugby is well established in the expatriate community in the Gulf, but this is the best indication to date that the indigenous population are starting to take to the sport. Ghaith Jalajel, the rugby development and services manager of the UAE RA, says the expectations on the side are understandably low, but the impact of the tour could be long-lasting.

"Once you go away on a rugby tour, you are hooked," said the Jordanian Jalajel, a long-serving development officer in the Gulf. "The boys are fired up and over the moon to be going. Of course it is going to be very difficult, but it is such good exposure for them."

Mohammed Hassan Rahma, who became the first UAE national to play international rugby when he turned out for the Gulf at the Singapore Sevens in 2008, returns after a long-standing knee injury. The squad has also been bolstered by a selection of experienced expatriates. Duncan Murray and Khaled Helal will be grateful for the game-time before they turn out for the Arabian Gulf in the Dubai Rugby Sevens in seven days' time.

Sean Hurley, the captain of the Gulf side who will play together for the last time when they line up next weekend, says the Sri Lanka tour is a significant step in the development of the sport here. "We [the Gulf] have played against the UAE team, and it is great for these young guys who are keen and want to learn," said the Australian expatriate.

"They can play in matches and tournaments here, but you don't get truly bitten by the bug until you go on tour. It is great for them."

Four of the Emiratis in the squad are drawn from Toa Dubai, the UAE club side who will have to do without their services when they challenge for the J Reid Engineering Al Ain Sevens today. Toa will lean on their gifted back, Rama Chand, who has his last chance to impress before the Gulf squad is selected ahead of their grand finale.

The Gulf won the last Al Ain Sevens 12 months ago. In their absence, Dubai Dragons will start today's competition as favourites.