UAE and West Asia rugby reach 'weird' conclusion as coronavirus creates questions for next season

Regional rugby authorities were among the first sports bodies to react to the virus outbreak

Dubai Exiles, in black, were crowed UAE Premiership champions in isolation. Courtesy Dubai Exiles
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Roll of honour 2019-2020

Dubai Rugby Sevens
Winners: Dubai Hurricanes
Runners up: Bahrain

West Asia Premiership
Winners: Bahrain
Runners up: UAE Premiership

UAE Premiership
}Winners: Dubai Exiles
Runners up: Dubai Hurricanes

UAE Division One
Winners: Abu Dhabi Saracens
Runners up: Dubai Hurricanes II

UAE Division Two
Winners: Barrelhouse
Runners up: RAK Rugby

Rugby players might be known for their love of a raucous celebration, but these are strange times.

Take, for instance, the traditional end of season bashes that should be taking place about now.

A variety of teams were crowned champions of their respective leagues in Gulf rugby this week in absentia. Not just in absentia, but in isolation.

Club chairmen were informed by an email circular of the decision to call a halt to the campaign for good.

In lieu of the usual schedule of finals days, the prizes were awarded to the league leaders instead.

The coaches, in turn, passed the news on to their players via WhatsApp. Not exactly the usual way of making memories, but needs must.

How, realistically, given the prevailing situation, could the players celebrate? A court session via Zoom? A social across Microsoft Teams?

DuRandt Gerber, the Dubai Exiles captain, has seen most things during a career that include a decade as a professional in Europe. But being crowned UAE Premiership champions remotely was a new one, even for him.

“Jacques [Benade, the Dubai Exiles coach] put it on the group and everyone was congratulating each other on WhatsApp, and sharing some funny videos,” Gerber said.

“But it is weird, going through a whole rugby season with the boys then you win it in the way we won it. It is not ideal. We all want to play, and now you can’t even celebrate with the boys to formally close it off.”

Gerber has a keen awareness of the severity of the global pandemic, though, as well as the fact there are people who are far worse off.

The fly-half played the majority of his pro career in Italy. On the same day he heard Exiles had won the league, he had called family friends in L’Aquila.

“One of our friends just graduated to be a doctor, and she had her degree graduation ceremony over Skype,” Gerber said. “It is quite tough. They have been on lockdown in their house for 19 days now, with only one permitted to leave the house to go to the supermarket.”

Rugby in this region was among the first to respond to the crisis by cancelling fixtures. At the start of March, Asia Rugby suspended their international competitions programme until July at least.

The UAE Rugby Federation, upon health ministry advice, took similar measures shortly after. It meant the finals for the West Asia and UAE Premierships, as well as the divisional competitions, were left unplayed.

The idea was mooted about rescheduling those finales at some point next season. But Gulf Rugby Management (GRM) made the call on Tuesday to rule that out, and reward the sides based on the league standings instead.

Quite what form the next campaign will take remains to be seen, even if the situation surrounding the pandemic does permit the usual September restart.

GRM will no longer be continuing in organising the league. Doha, who were long-time fixtures in the cross-border competition, remain on the outside. Abu Dhabi Saracens have signalled they do not intend to consider promotion, despite dominating this season's second tier.

“Hopefully, we will be able to kick off the new season in September, and get stronger,” Rob Riding, the Exiles chairman, said.

Whether Gerber remains involved is also unclear. The Exiles talisman is 38 now, and suggested this time last year that he would be retiring – but he has not ruled out another campaign yet.

“I was going to retire, then I went through the summer, and started training with the boys at the beginning of the season,” Gerber said. “I enjoyed it but told Jacques I could only commit to one training session per week, and he was more than happy.

“It worked out. Who knows about next season? Let’s get through the summer, hopefully get through the coronavirus situation, and see how the body feels come August.”

Roll of honour 2019-2020

Dubai Rugby Sevens
Winners: Dubai Hurricanes
Runners up: Bahrain

West Asia Premiership
Winners: Bahrain
Runners up: UAE Premiership

UAE Premiership
}Winners: Dubai Exiles
Runners up: Dubai Hurricanes

UAE Division One
Winners: Abu Dhabi Saracens
Runners up: Dubai Hurricanes II

UAE Division Two
Winners: Barrelhouse
Runners up: RAK Rugby