Full-contact girls rugby thriving in the UAE after a cautious start

Sport has grown exponentially, as shown by the Pitch 1 final at the Emirates Dubai Sevens

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On Pitch 8 at The Sevens, Dubai, there is a swarm of girls attending rugby training. On one side of the field, younger players are running through handling drills, while wearing the accessories that mark them out as tag rugby players.

On the other, older teenagers are honing skills including lineout lifting, under the watchful eye of two former international players. These players are involved in the full-contact version of the game.

A decade or so ago, there would scarcely have been this many young girls playing the sport across the whole country. Now, there are scores of players in the junior section of just one club.

Girls’ age-group rugby has expanded to the point that, for the first time in history, the Gulf Under 19 Girls final was hosted on Pitch 1 of the Friday of the Emirates Dubai Sevens at the end of last year.

It was high-class fare, too, with Dubai Exiles – whose training session this was – beating Speranza 22 Academy in front of the jam-packed scaffolding stands.

“I had friends taking videos of me walking back on the bigscreen,” Tara Aksoy, who scored the first try of the final for the Exiles, recalls now of that night. “I was like, ‘That’s me! I’m up there!’ I loved it.”

Aksoy, who turns 18 next month, is Turkish, and has lived in Dubai since she was 10. She has already represented the region in touch, the UAE in the full-contact version, and toured destinations as varied as France and Uzbekistan.

Prop idols

Girls full-contact rugby may be in its infancy in the Middle East, but there are already a number of role models for players to look up to.

Sophie Shams (Dubai Exiles mini, England sevens international)

An Emirati student who is blazing a trail in rugby. She first learnt the game at Dubai Exiles and captained her JESS Primary school team. After going to study geophysics at university in the UK, she scored a sensational try in a cup final at Twickenham. She has played for England sevens, and is now contracted to top Premiership club Saracens.

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Seren Gough-Walters (Sharjah Wanderers mini, Wales rugby league international)

Few players anywhere will have taken a more circuitous route to playing rugby on Sky Sports. Gough-Walters was born in Al Wasl Hospital in Dubai, raised in Sharjah, did not take up rugby seriously till she was 15, has a master’s in global governance and ethics, and once worked as an immigration officer at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi. In the summer of 2021 she played for Wales against England in rugby league, in a match that was broadcast live on TV.

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Erin King (Dubai Hurricanes mini, Ireland sevens international)

Aged five, Australia-born King went to Dubai Hurricanes training at The Sevens with her brothers. She immediately struck up a deep affection for rugby. She returned to the city at the end of last year to play at the Dubai Rugby Sevens in the colours of Ireland in the Women’s World Series tournament on Pitch 1.

That is quite a feat, given she took up the sport less than four years ago, and had to persuade her concerned mum in order to pursue it.

“In Year 11, I didn’t play contact at all, because my mum didn’t want me to,” says the Dubai College schoolgirl.

“She was concerned about concussion. We didn’t know much about rugby. Being Turkish, rugby is not a thing for us. When it was Covid times, I re-joined training because there was no contact due to the rules at the time.

“I had so many friends playing rugby, and I wanted to continue. When the rules were such that we couldn’t tackle, mum said, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot,’ because there was no risk of concussion.

“I loved it. Once we moved back to being able to play contact, she was more accepting because she had learned more about it.

“It is not as dangerous as you think it is. You are taught step by step, which meant I could learn everything in a safe way.”

The Exiles will be back in action this weekend, as part of the HSBC Youth Rugby festival at The Sevens. There are 12 teams in their section, including a touring side from Kazakhstan.

Nicole Brits, the Exiles captain, thinks the game is flourishing here, even among girls who might have started out with doubts.

“It is a good stress reliever, but there is also plenty of skill to it – far more than meets the eye,” says Brits, who attends Dubai English Speaking College.

“Being from South Africa, it is part of the culture. My first memory of rugby was my brother playing.

“My parents originally said no to contact. Once I said, ‘No, my friends are doing it so I want to do it,’ from then on, I was in love with it.

“At the beginning, most of my friends played netball, and they would say, ‘Why are you playing rugby?’ Now my friend group at school, all of us play rugby in the same team.”

Despite the relatively small pool of players, UAE girls already have trailblazers to look up to. Sophie Shams started out as very young with the Exiles, has since played for England sevens and is now contracted to Saracens in the UK’s top division.

Erin King first learnt the game with Dubai Hurricanes, and returned to the city at the Sevens as a player for Ireland on the World Series last year.

Now a number of the champion age-group side at the Exiles are looking to follow in a similar vein, including Megan Theocharis. She is planning to attend university in the United States, potentially on a rugby scholarship.

She describes Shams – who was a predecessor of hers at both JESS Jumeirah primary school and Dubai College – as a “massive idol for me”, and she says the Sevens final win was “the best 14 minutes of my life”.

“It was more cool than scary,” Theocharis says of that game. “As soon as we stepped on the pitch, it felt easier than a lot of our other games because of the support of the crowd.

“You don’t know who’s who, or where your family are, because there are so many people. Everyone is cheering you on.”

Sophie Shams after Saracens practice match against Sale Sharks. Courtesy Sophie Shams

The current status of the girls’ game in the country marks a vast contrast to what it once was, according to Lindsay Wakefield.

He started coaching at Exiles in 2014 when there were scarcely enough players to fill four sevens teams to play full-contact rugby.

“Then it was a case of, ‘Oh well, a few girls can play,’ but it has reached the point we are now hosted on Pitch 1 in front of that crowd,” Wakefield said.

“It has been quite a journey for girls’ rugby, and it continues to develop. The facilities help. You are playing rugby on a very fast ground that is impeccable, right from day dot.

“That encourages a very fast flowing game. I think the schools are very good at developing fitness.

“Although it is expanding all the time, the natural homes of rugby in the western hemisphere – South Africa, UK and Europe – there are a lot of expats from there who are here and want to continue that.

“All that comes together in a perfect storm, in a good way.”

Dubai Exiles Under 19 girls training at The Sevens Stadium. Ruel Pableo for The National
Updated: January 29, 2022, 5:27 AM
Prop idols

Girls full-contact rugby may be in its infancy in the Middle East, but there are already a number of role models for players to look up to.

Sophie Shams (Dubai Exiles mini, England sevens international)

An Emirati student who is blazing a trail in rugby. She first learnt the game at Dubai Exiles and captained her JESS Primary school team. After going to study geophysics at university in the UK, she scored a sensational try in a cup final at Twickenham. She has played for England sevens, and is now contracted to top Premiership club Saracens.

----

Seren Gough-Walters (Sharjah Wanderers mini, Wales rugby league international)

Few players anywhere will have taken a more circuitous route to playing rugby on Sky Sports. Gough-Walters was born in Al Wasl Hospital in Dubai, raised in Sharjah, did not take up rugby seriously till she was 15, has a master’s in global governance and ethics, and once worked as an immigration officer at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi. In the summer of 2021 she played for Wales against England in rugby league, in a match that was broadcast live on TV.

----

Erin King (Dubai Hurricanes mini, Ireland sevens international)

Aged five, Australia-born King went to Dubai Hurricanes training at The Sevens with her brothers. She immediately struck up a deep affection for rugby. She returned to the city at the end of last year to play at the Dubai Rugby Sevens in the colours of Ireland in the Women’s World Series tournament on Pitch 1.