With Dubai Rugby Sevens it’s all for love of the game

Peculiar thing, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens. At any one time there could be a 40-something rugby newcomer playing against a World Cup winner. Players of pedigree are liberally sprinkled around the complex this weekend.

Maggie Alphonsi of Tribe in action at the Rugby Sevens Series at The Sevens grounds in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
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Peculiar thing, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens. Beautiful, too. At any one time, on a perfectly manicured grass field in a far-flung corner of desert, there could be a 40-something rugby newcomer playing against a World Cup winner.

Players of pedigree are liberally sprinkled around the complex this weekend.

Women’s World Cup winners, for instance, abound, and are not solely confined to the England side in the IRB world series tournament.

Maggie Alphonsi, arguably the biggest name women’s rugby has produced, smiled her way through the Invitational Open tournament, where she was a guest of a side called Tribe.

More arbitrarily, Steve Thompson, who played a central role in England winning the Webb Ellis trophy against Australia in 2003, turned out alongside some local veterans.

He vowed he never would, but he was coaxed back into playing by new friends he has made since becoming a Dubai resident in 2011.

“I have been living over here for three years now and I thought, with the spirit of the vets, it is about playing with your mates,” Thompson said.

“There are three or four [vets] teams who come out and take it really seriously, are only here to win, and that is up to them.

“I am at the other end of the scale. I have done all that, played professional rugby, now it is just about playing for a laugh with your mates. If you go out on Day 1, so be it.”

Thompson, 36, is well into retirement – his second one, and this time it is for good – from professional rugby, but he has been keeping himself fit.

Even if he did cut an exhausted figure by the end of a 29-0 loss to the Bali Legends on Day 2.

After moving to the UAE, he took up kick-boxing with his Gulf Legends teammate, Mark Gathercole, the former Dubai Exiles prop, but has switched to cross-fit training lately.

“I am a bit punch drunk as it is, not the cleverest, so I can’t take too many more hits to the head and [Gathercole] was a bit quick for me,” Thompson said.

“Trying to keep fit out here is quite hard, but with the weather as it is, being on the beach at 5.30am is beautiful.

“I was always a bit old for sevens after I was 22, so getting the body ready for playing, then stopping for a while, then playing again, is hard work.

“The body was a little sore this morning, but I have really enjoyed it. It is with a good group of lads and that’s what it is all about.”

Alphonsi, who turns 31 later this month, is supposed to be retired, too.

It did not look like it, though, given the muscularity of her tackling while playing for Tribe’s second team in the International Open.

The Open is the third tier of the women’s competition. As such, the opposition might have hoped for an easier time than the player known as “Maggie the Machine” was willing to provide.

She officially stepped away from rugby after winning the XVs World Cup with England earlier this year, and aims to represent Great Britain in the shot put at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“I have been playing social rugby, just for fun, and I have enjoyed coming out to Dubai,” she said. “Sevens is hard work on the body and if you don’t keep it up, you will struggle.”

Sevens is an option for aspiring Olympians now, but Alphonsi felt age had caught up with her, hence the switch to athletics.

“The girls coming through are 18 and 19, and they are a lot faster and fitter,” she said.

“Although I am strong and fit, from what I have seen so far of the other girls, they are absolutely amazing, super quick, and I am not close to that.”


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