Rugby returns to UAE as clubs see light at the end of the tunnel

Competitive XVs to restart across the country after 18 months of challenges because of the pandemic

Abu Dhabi Saracens won all nine of their matches with a bonus point as they won UAE Division One - but they will opt against promotion to the Premiership. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Saracens
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Eighteen months after competitive shut down across West Asia, amid the uncertainty of the onset of the pandemic, domestic rugby players will return to action for the first time this weekend.

Coronavirus accounted for the entire 2020-21 campaign. Dubai’s clubs were at least able to offer some respite to those craving the sport last season, as they played out a modified, 10-a-side version, designed to limit contact.

An attempt to do something similar in Abu Dhabi between the Emirate’s three major clubs – Harlequins, Saracens and Al Ain Amblers – was quickly aborted.

Now, though, their players are gearing up to return to full contact, full teams, and at full bore.

“It is going to be brilliant, having had no real rugby here for 14 months,” Niall Lear, the Harlequins coach, said ahead of his side’s UAE Premiership home game against Jebel Ali Dragons on Friday.

“Everyone is so excited, although I’m not 100 per cent sure how it will go. In my head, I have a good idea. But we are almost 12 months behind in terms of development. We will see.

“What is for sure is it is going to be awesome to have rugby back in Abu Dhabi.”

Lear acknowledges there could yet be teething issues surrounding the return to play, especially given the 48-hour PCR protocol in place for fixtures in the capital.

Although some players have departed in the time since competitive rugby was last played, he is enthusiastic over the prospects of some new recruits.

For the club as a whole, he estimates membership is currently down by around 25 per cent. That is perhaps no surprise, given “we had 40 minutes of rugby in a year, which was a disaster”.

However, he is optimistic the numbers will start to swell again, especially once junior fixtures return after schools half-term.

“It is a case of trying to convince parents and kids that rugby is as awesome as it was.

“What has been tough has been that sports like football, cricket, and athletics have been going for an extra three or four months before rugby got the OK.

“We want every kid that comes to our junior section to be going home with it as their weekly highlight.

“We are a community club. If we can drive sport in the community and get rugby up and running again, we have all done our job this year.”

While Harlequins and Dragons are meeting at Zayed Sports City, Dubai Exiles will start their UAE Premiership title defence by hosting city rivals Dubai Tigers.

With the Dubai Knights-Eagles senior men’s side no longer active in the competition, the top division is now a five-team contest. Dubai Hurricanes have a bye week and will be playing their traditional club memorial day.

Abu Dhabi Saracens are preparing to defend their UAE Division One title, with a number of new faces, and a new coach in the form of Jason Brown.

He says the club endured similar challenges to that of their neighbours Harlequins, but that “there is light at the end of the tunnel”.

“During this difficult time, it is important that we at Abu Dhabi Saracens are prepared and ready to transition back into rugby within the UAE,” Brown said.

“I know we will do smoothly and effectively when called upon.

“To quote my old coach who I recently met with in the UK, ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do’. We have always had some tough, determined people at this club.

“Outside of the relevant scientific community, I doubt that many of us foresaw or understood the implications of the magnitude of the pandemic.

“During the prolonged absence of our great community sport, we have lost a number of dear friends, members and supporters.

“However, with the best vaccination programme in the world, we can now look forward to enjoying rugby in Abu Dhabi and the UAE.”

Updated: September 30, 2021, 8:05 AM