Sophie Shams - from Emirati schoolgirl to England rugby international

Playing for England at the Rugby Europe Sevens Grand Prix was an eye-opening experience

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Dreams hardly come more far-fetched. Growing up to play rugby for England? It is a tough enough road at the best of times.

But for an Emirati schoolgirl in Dubai? More or less impossible.

Sophie Shams was besotted by the game since, aged six, she watched her mother, Jo, playing in the Gulf women’s competition at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.

She captained her primary school team, which was otherwise peopled exclusively by boys. She was outstanding at club level, too, until the age where she was no longer permitted to play mixed rugby.

By 13, she was playing Under 19s girls rugby. She left to study geophysics at a university with largest rugby club among British unis, and promptly made the first team. She has played UK premiership rugby, too.

And then, last summer, that England call up.

She had caught the eye by scoring a sensational try at Twickenham for Durham in the British Universities final.

She knew her name had been passed along a chain that reached England, and that her abilities might have been discussed. But, still. A call up? Already?

“I didn’t know how much to look into it, as I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Shams said.

“Then, a few days later, I got an email selecting me for the squad.

“I was in TK Maxx buying wrapping paper with my mum and best friend at the time.

"We were euphoric with tears flowing. It was so surreal. The other shoppers must have thought we were crazy.”

They got straight on the phone to her father, Omar, then spread the word to everyone else, including her old coaches from Dubai.

In addition to the wrapping paper, she also allowed herself one little indulgence to celebrate her call up.

“I did get a new pair of boots to match the kit before we went,” she said.

Playing in the white of England at the Rugby Europe Sevens Grand Prix in Kharkiv, Ukraine, last July was an eye-opening experience.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s what I would say of the standard. It was such a step up.

“I would be playing against world series players I saw on Pitch One at the Dubai Sevens.

“I learned so much with a lovely bunch of people within such a small timeframe, it felt like a whirlwind.

“I still don’t know if I processed it all or asked myself if I could do it, I just turned up ready for anything.

“I didn’t know what position I’d be playing but I stepped up and I even scored my first try for England.”

Her first awareness of the game came on Pitch One at the annual Sevens in 2006.

Back then, though, the ground itself was a different one – the old Dubai Exiles in Al Awir, which was bulldozed two years later, as the game moved further out into the desert, to the current site at The Sevens.

“My first memory was sitting on the metal barriers of the pitches with my dad,” she said.

“He would hold me whilst we would cheer on my mum who would be playing.

"More specifically, she won the Dubai Sevens one year, and we got to run around the main pitch.

“It was the year it rained so I was wearing a red waterproof, and she held my hand as she ran round with her team.

“They beat the Hurricanes, and they booed us as we passed them.”

Other mothers inspired her during her early forays in the sport, too. But not in quite the same way.

“When we first started contact, I distinctly remember the sideline mums would be the worst at every single game,” she said.

“As they would inspect my team, they would identify me as a girl but I would play this to my advantage, especially in contact.

“They would instruct their son to run at me because ‘she’s a girl’. I would tackle them so they wouldn’t come near me, and soon the ‘run at the girl’ turned to ‘get the girl’. It always made me smile on the inside.

“On the flip side, I would be trusted to make the big tackles, namely two guys we’d call ‘Big Toby’ from Abu Dhabi, and Trevor from the Hurricanes.”

Andy Williams first started coaching Shams at Under 6 level, and oversaw her development for much of the time thereafter, too.

“Was I ever afraid for her getting injured playing with the boys? Never,” Williams said.

“She had great technique in the tackle, and great technique is the best way to stay safe.”

Williams also remembers the way here excellence would get “under the skin” of opposing teams.

“I remember once when we won in Abu Dhabi we gave her the bumps as it was her 12th birthday,” Williams said.

“We gave her 13, including the one for luck. The opposition coach complained as some parents had counted 13, and wanted her disqualified as she was too old.

“That’s how much her ability got under the skin of some other teams.

“Another example was where a parent shouted ‘smash the girl’. That was a particular favourite of mine. They tried, failed and we won the game.”

Was I ever afraid for her getting injured playing with the boys? Never

Shams’ chances to press her claims to add to that England experience from last summer have been limited since.

At the 2019 Dubai Rugby Sevens, she ruptured her ACL. In a cruel irony, it was the same injury – on the other leg – as she had suffered on the same field, at the same event, a few years earlier.

“It was on the same day and nearly the same blade of grass as my other one, too, so I guess Pitch Two hates me!” she said.

“It was devastating. How could I go through the same ordeal again?

“A lot of doubt set in, and I have had some tough times, especially with having to do the hardest part at uni, away from my family, although I had my uni family to fall back on and they have really helped.”

She had surgery three and a half months ago, and said “my rehab has been much better this time round” even though “the pandemic has really thrown a spanner in the works.”

“In terms of missing the game, I have found it incredibly hard to be around the team as I just want to join them,” she said.

“I realise that everyone copes differently as some people have to be pitch side to stay involved.

“You don’t realise how much rugby takes up your life as you essentially eat sleep and breathe it.

“With that taken away, you really have to ask yourself who you are without a ball in your hand and without boots on your feet.”

Although she said rehab has been tough mentally and physically, she is back running in a straight line now, and has enjoyed finding creative ways to stay in shape during isolation.

“A silver lining is that I got to concentrate on my degree a lot more, and get some upper body gains in the gym, as well as offer help in other ways than scoring tries on a pitch,” she said.