From Wales to Abu Dhabi, James McCarthy hoping Dubai Sevens can kick-start rugby career

UAE-based player ready for first game in famous tournament with Abu Dhabi Harlequins after Wales plans last year were ended by pandemic

James McCarthy will be playing for Abu Dhabi Harlequins at the Dubai Sevens. Khushnum Bhandari/ The National

Before Covid harpooned all world sport, not least rugby, James McCarthy might have been sat at home in Wales pondering a trip to Dubai to play at one of the world’s great sevens events.

He had already played for his homeland at tournaments in New Zealand and Australia on the 2019-20 Sevens World Series.

Retain his place the following season, and he would have been set fair for an appearance in front of the pulsating crowds on Pitch 1 at the Emirates Dubai Sevens.

Then the pandemic intervened, and everything changed.

The Dubai Sevens was cancelled for the first time in its glorious history in 2020. In the time since, Wales cut its funding for sevens, and has merged with the other home nations to make Great Britain instead.

McCarthy’s circumstances have changed even more drastically still. He still has a chance to make it to Pitch 1 when the Sevens returns to its traditional berth of the UAE calendar this weekend. But, instead of a guaranteed appearance as a player on the World Series, he has one shot at it.

Rather than the red of Wales, he will be wearing the colours of Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who are aiming for a Pitch 1 final in the Gulf Men’s tournament on Saturday.

And, who knows, maybe it will be the start of a route back for him to the pro game and international rugby in the UK?

“Playing with pressure, in front of fans, I love that,” McCarthy, 22, said. “I just want my name out there again. Even if it doesn’t come to anything, I would just like people to be talking about my rugby again.”

How McCarthy has ended up playing club rugby in the UAE capital is a complex story with — unsurprisingly — the pandemic at its centre.

Born and brought up in Wales, his first significant international honours actually came with Ireland — the country of his grandparents. He played for Ireland Under 20s while part of Munster’s academy.

Homesickness led him to return to Wales, and a contract with the Dragons, which is when the call up for Wales sevens came about.

James McCarthy playing for Ireland against France in an under-20 Six Nations match in 2018. AFP

Then the pandemic struck. His mother and step-dad are now principals at schools in Abu Dhabi, and at the start of this year he came for a visit.

“When I came out here, I was only meant to be here for three weeks back in January,” he said. “That is when [the UK government put UAE] on the red list, so I couldn’t fly back. It is nearly a year later now, and I am loving it here.”

His pro rugby career has stalled but he is now studying full time, on a distance learning sports psychology degree, while playing for Harlequins.

He has had offers to return to the UK to play on part-time, one-year deals. But that provides nothing like the certainty it would take to tear him away from Abu Dhabi.

“I thought that if it didn’t work after a year, I would still be in the same situation I am a year later, with no degree,” he said. “I am just hoping someone gives me a decent shot, but I am not holding my breath at the moment.”

Instead, he is focused on helping Harlequins back to success at the Sevens. He believes they have a well-balanced squad, while coach Niall Lear is quietly confident — especially with a player of McCarthy’s calibre to call on.

“He is very good at sevens, having played on the international circuit, and it is our good fortune for us that he has been with us,” Lear said.

“In terms of our squad, there are hard calls that have had to be made, but that is a great position for a club to be in. We are quietly hopeful we will be there or thereabouts when it comes to finals time.”

Gulf Men’s League

Pool A Dubai Hurricanes, Dubai Exiles, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Abu Dhabi Saracens

Pool B Jebel Ali Dragons, Bahrain, Dubai Tigers, Dubai Hurricanes II

Updated: November 30th 2021, 9:11 AM