New 10-a-side rugby format a winner for Dubai sides

Modified version introduced to allow competition during Covid after Arabian Gulf season was cancelled

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - December 05, 2019: Jebel Ali celebrate the win against the Tigers in the match between Jebel Ali Dragons and Dubai Tigers in the Gulf mens league at the HSBC rugby sevens series 2020. Thursday, December 5th, 2019. The Sevens, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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The new hybrid form of rugby brought in to allow the region’s players to return to the sport during Covid times has been labelled a success.

The official 2020-2021 Arabian Gulf rugby season was cancelled because of the pandemic – at least in the recognised format of competition.

However, teams were granted the chance to play some rugby from February onwards via a modified version of the game that minimised contact between players.

The new variety of the game, created by UAE coach and former dual code international Apollo Perelini, was 10-a-side, with matches lasting for three segments of 15 minutes, and involved some amendments borrowed from rugby league.

Dubai’s competition concluded last month, with Dubai Exiles the winners after a set of friendly fixtures involving Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Tigers, and Dubai Hurricanes.

According to Matt Richards, the Dragons player coach, the hybrid format brought in to counter the effect of Covid on the sport was a great success.

“We were adhering to the [Covid-safety] rules because there were no scrums, not so many players on the pitch, and short line outs,” Richards said.

“The rules were really innovative, with only two players from each team allowed at the breakdown.

"If an extra player went in, it was a penalty to the other team, which kept the game alive. It was a really innovative way of letting everyone play.

“Players are stuck in their old habits, but it didn’t take too long as the ref was on the whistle straight away, and you lose ground.

"The last thing you want to be doing is defending all game because of penalties, so you learn quickly.”

The UAE Rugby Federation met with club representatives online this week to congratulate them on delivering some form of competition, despite “trying challenges”.

They said they are “planning to encourage investments, improve systems and raise our rugby profile” in the future.

Richards said one positive by-product of the altered conditions this season was the elevation of a number of talented schoolboy players into the men’s game.

Schalk du Preez was a prolific try-scorer as Exiles won the competition, while Xander Walls, another schoolboy, excelled having started every match for Dragons.

Despite the competition’s success, Richards says the next step in to find a way to ensure front-row forwards – whose roles are diminished by the absence of scrums – are not lost from the game.

“Selfishly, I absolutely loved it, but I think - if the next stage is not going back to XVs in September – has to integrate scrums, and maybe more in a ruck,” Richards said.

“Rugby is inclusive, and a game for all shapes and sizes. Hopefully we are not too long away from scrummaging and lineouts, otherwise when XVs does come back, you won’t have any props or hookers.

“Some of the more mobile ones are there, but a lot of the guys who particularly enjoy that aspect are missing out.

“If we are going to get back to proper XVs, I feel like there is probably another step we can go to on the way to getting that.”