When Saturday comes: weekend change ushers in a new era for Gulf rugby

Switch to Saturday fixtures will be a small amendment to a ritual that was unique to the sport in the region

In all truth, when Dubai Tigers and Dubai Exiles renew acquaintances in the UAE Premiership this weekend at Dubai Sports City, little will feel different.

The ball will still be a prolate spheroid made of rubber-polyester. The weather will likely be fair, and the grass green.

And yet the fixture will be quietly ushering in a new era. From now on, amateur players across the country will be getting their regular rugby fix on a Saturday, after a history spent waiting for Friday to come.

League fixtures will be resuming for the first time since the government announced the move to a four-and-a-half day, Monday to Friday working week.

Although the change will scarcely be noticeable, it has left some to reflect on the alteration to a ritual that was unique to the Gulf.

“In the old days the weekends with Thursday-Friday, so we had to work Saturdays, and on a Friday there used to only be one flight in and one flight out with Gulf Air, not like today where there are several,” said Andy Cole, the long-serving chairman of Abu Dhabi Harlequins.

“Sometimes you might fly out, then on the way back a group of dignitaries might have decided to join the flight to the UAE from, for example, Bahrain, and a number of players would be bumped off the flight.

“We would have to talk to each other and work out who would lose their job if they didn’t make it to work tomorrow.

“Then players with families would want to get back to make sure their kids and wives weren’t worried. It was like a lottery to narrow down who was going to go home.”

Cole first joined the capital’s oldest rugby club, who were then known as the Abu Dhabi Bats, for the 1991-92 season.

Pitch markings for rugby were once drawn by hand by volunteers, who poured lime powder from cups, following a line of string. Photo: Andy Cole

In his first season, matches were played on a stretch of beach at low tide, near where the Ritz Carlton Hotel is now situated. The pitch markings were drawn by hand by volunteers, who poured lime powder from cups, following a line of string.

“When the referee arrived and started the game you could see the lines, but after 15 or 20 minutes they had either blown away or been trodden on and you couldn’t make them out at all,” Cole said.

Although Covid-19 has meant cross-border travel is now limited for weekend rugby, the majority of the game’s history in the region involved clubs travelling to away fixtures in Bahrain, Doha, Muscat, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Often, the challenges of getting to away games was significant, according to Cole.

“Back when it was Thursday-Friday weekends, you had to request your passport from your employers,” Cole said. “Often, players would arrive at the airport and realise they had forgotten their passports. It wasn’t as if they could nip home to get it, as it was still in the office.

"Sometimes we would charter our own flights on a small plane, a Twin Otter which was used to fly people in and out of the desert or oil workers in and out of the islands" Andy Cole said. Photo: Andy Cole

“A lot of the time you would end up flying without enough players. Sometimes we would charter our own flights on a small plane, a Twin Otter which was used to fly people in and out of the desert or oil workers in and out of the islands.

“One of the pilots would play for us, and the co-pilot would fly us home if the pilot got injured.”

Perhaps the players who will notice the effect of the switch to Saturday kick offs will be those who no longer need to rush to games straight from Friday worship.

“It used to be tight, to be honest,” said Mansour Al Zaabi, who became the first Emirati club captain of an established team when he was appointed to the role with Abu Dhabi Harlequins.

“Sometimes we used to have matches kicking off at 1pm or 2pm, and you would barely have time between finishing your prayers and rushing to the game.

“That is how it used to be. Now we can have a properly chilled Friday, enjoy it with the family, then have Saturday fully available for rugby.”

The first Friday rugby matches in Abu Dhabi which were not played on sand were played on training field borrowed from Al Wahda football club. Photo: Andy Cole

Al Zaabi took to rugby after discovering the game while researching new sports to play.

“I saw rugby and I thought, ‘Is that sport even played over here?’ I got in touch with Harlequins, and started there,” he said. Four years later, he was invited to be the club captain.

The loosehead prop reckons the new ritual of Saturday rugby might take a little getting used to, but he thinks it will offer teams greater flexibility.

“I don’t see why games still can’t be played on Fridays and people could still have the remaining two days of the weekend if they want to,” Al Zaabi said.

The weekends are longer now, and people will have more time to spend with their families over the weekend. It will be interesting to see how it is going to be and how long it will take people to get used to it.”

Updated: January 14th 2022, 9:43 AM