Japan's rugby union model a pattern sport in the UAE can imitate

Japan has proven building through corporate association works, and some UAE clubs are running with that idea, writes Paul Radley.

Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, took over the top spot in the UAE's rugby echelon from Abu Dhabi Harlequins, in green, last season. With the national team's struggles, questions abound about pursuing Japan's model of corporate rugby as opposed to club rugby.
Powered by automated translation

It says much about rugby's status as the poor relations within UAE sport that they can look with envy at the national cricket team.

The country's standing in cricket, a sport in which the UAE consistently hovers in the teens of the world rankings, far exceeds that of rugby.

The national team in the oval-ball code rank a lowly 96th among members of the International Rugby Board.

The two sports have one thing in common here: the representative team has traditionally been made up exclusively of expatriates.

Other than that, there are few parallels between the way the games are run. Domestic rugby is played by long-existing club sides made up of players from all areas of the employment spectrum.

By contrast, the leading cricket teams in the country are all company sides, such as Fly Emirates, New Medical Centre and Eurocon Alubond.

Cricket-loving employers actively recruit talented players from the subcontinent, grant them jobs and sort out their employment visas, solely to strengthen their staff cricket team.

There is one significant reason cricket can bear such a burden more easily than rugby. Cricketers are generally recruited from countries with a lower per-capita income, such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, than in rugby, where most leading players tend to hail from Australia, New Zealand and the British Isles.

Japanese model

There is evidence of company - rather than club - rugby thriving elsewhere in Asia. In Japan, the continent's one rugby superpower, the Top League is inextricably intertwined with the corporate sector.

Professional players are employed by companies and play for teams going by monikers such as Toyota Verblitz, Sanyo Wild Knights and Coca-Cola West Red Sparks. Japan are the trailblazers for rugby in Asia. In the UAE, where rugby remains a relatively niche sport, no clubs can realistically adopt that model, although many have at least some of the ideas already at work.

Dubai Wasps, for example, gave up naming rights to their new sponsors and this week became Xodus Wasps. But it is not like Xodus Group are going to employ professional players to play for the club anytime soon.

It is no coincidence the top two senior teams at present, Jebel Ali Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins, are the ones who work hardest on recruitment - which includes finding employment for their players.

Dragons swept the board last season. That was based on a robust recruitment drive that involved senior players exhausting their contacts books of talented players back at home. The club then sought to find jobs for the ones who were keen on making the move.

Appearance fees

Harlequins are probably the club which most resemble the Japanese model, albeit in very embryonic terms.

Andy Cole, the chairman, says he aims to "run the club as a business." So much so that his actual business, Prosperity Insurance Brokerage, acts as a club sponsor and even employs one of the leading players, Ben Bolger.

But while Bolger probably finds a sympathetic boss whenever his rugby commitments distract him, he still has to do a full day's work in his role as a financial consultant. Simply finding players employment does not equate to semi-professional status.

"To get to the stage of semi-professionalism, you either need clubs that are owned by a rich benefactor, as you see in the UK, or have a league which generates income," Cole said.

"At my local village club in the UK, they have a full-time director of rugby, and some of their players are paid money, but not enough to give up work.

"I think that will be the next stage for players here: appearance money for players. It is the next logical step."

Offsetting costs

Harlequins do well to generate enough income that they will at least be able to pay a head coach and a director of rugby this season, given they have to offset costs of Dh1.5 million per year.

They plan to recoup 40 per cent of their expenses via subscriptions paid by their 650 juniors, 200 touch-rugby players and 100 men and women playing members.

Another 35 per cent comes in via sponsorships and barter agreements with companies like Etihad, who assist with the regular overseas travel within the Gulf, and Hertz.

Unlike most other clubs in the UAE, they also make some money on the food and beverage takings at their clubhouse at Zayed Sports City.

While the majority of the takings go straight to the landlords, a percentage of revenue goes back to the club. Quins generated approximately Dh40,000 from that arrangement last season.

They aim to raise an extra Dh60-100,000 annually via end-of-season or Christmas functions and raffles.

Working together

Chris Davies, the outgoing director of rugby of Harlequins, believes the game here could progress if the UAE Rugby Federation went halves on employing players with some of the leading clubs.

Harlequins will have two paid members of coaching staff next season.

Dubai Exiles and Hurricanes, meanwhile, each have at least one full-time paid administrator. Davies thinks such roles could be filled by paid players in future, to supplement their value on the field.

It is no coincidence that the model he recommends correlates strongly to the one used in Hong Kong.

The country whose stunning rise in recent seasons has contrasted so greatly with the UAE's slump is where Davies is heading next.

"Not all the clubs would be able to afford it, but bigger clubs would be able to afford a 50-50 share [with the Rugby Federation]," he said.

"Both parties will win from that. You will have a player doing admin and then training as a semi-pro or even full-time, then be available for the national team."

The competition

The number of members at Harlequins is still healthy, despite the fact they have had competition on their patch for the past two seasons.

While the older clubs are able to countenance the idea of paying players, Abu Dhabi Saracens are still trying to establish a footing in the domestic game.

Their operational costs of Dh800,000 for their first two season were funded by the president of the club, Dave Jackson, but he remains optimistic for the future.

"It was a big wake up call for the club, but now we have picked up some new sponsors," said Jackson, who is also looking forward to the construction of a new home venue for his club.

The club hope to profit from their associations with Llandovery College, the Welsh school which is the alma mater of Lions star George North, and the London club of the same name to bolster their playing ranks next season.

"We have to attract the right calibre of players somehow and we have a plan for how we are going to do that," Jackson said.

"We have to support UAE rugby at the end of the day, that is our goal. How do we help the team get back up and start challenging the like of Philippines again?

"It is a tall task."

Follow us