Tutus and oboes nice, but rugby is better for this Dubai schoolgirl

Sophie Shams does most of the things all 11-year-old girls do, but prefers the rough-and-tumble challenge of rugby.

Asa Firth, Sophie Shams‘s rugby master, says she is ‘outstanding’.
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Many schoolgirls in the UAE might list ballet and playing the oboe among their extra-curricular activities. Not all of them, however, would also name as their hero a rugby player who has a prominent broken nose, cauliflower ears and goes by the nickname "Mad Dog".

Sophie Shams, an 11-year-old primary school pupil from Dubai, is blessed with such a broad range of interests. It is a wonder how she finds time to fit them all in.

Perhaps she should start thinking about wearing her rugby boots along with her ballet tutu, just to save time.

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"Sometimes she goes from ballet, gets into the car, changes out of her ballet outfit and into her rugby kit, and goes off to play rugby," her mother, Jo, says.

If she ever had to decide between her hobbies, she would not need much thinking time: what some might see as more conventional female pursuits would be dropped straight away. There are just nowhere near enough collisions in ballet.

"I like doing the forwards' work - the rucking, tackling, mauling, and ripping the ball out," says Shams, who plays as a prop for the Dubai Exiles Under 11 boys side.

"I like getting in there and not hanging back. Making a tackle is a great feeling, I love feeling like you have stopped someone."

It is her destructive defence, rather than her gender, which has been turning heads in junior rugby.

She was one of the stand-out players on the recent tour of the UK which the Exiles Under 11s went through undefeated, and also captained her school side, which is otherwise solely boys, for most of the recently concluded season.

"In terms of commitment, desire and strength, she is the outstanding player," says Asa Firth, her rugby master at Jumeirah English Speaking School.

"Her standard of play has been remarked on by the coaches of every team we have played against. They all know who she is, and not because she is a girl.

"When we played against [Dubai English Speaking School], who are the outstanding team at Under 11s, she changed the game.

"A huge guy on their team took a penalty, ran straight at her, and she absolutely flattened him.

"It was the sort of tackle where everyone watching went, 'Oof', and assumed someone must have broken something, but she just got up and carried on. It changed the game."

Each of her parents - father, Omar, an Emirati engineering manager, and mother, Jo, who is originally from Cambridge in England - shared hockey as a first sporting love.

However, upon settling in Dubai in 1992, Jo was confronted by a fallow landscape for hockey, and turned her hand to rugby.

She still plays for the Dubai Exiles women's side, and all three of her children have followed her lead.

Son Joe, who also excels at swimming, was part of this year's highly-successful Under 14 side at Dubai College. Sophie's little sister, Nadia, has also inherited the rugby bug.

Given the family's rugby pedigree, mother Jo says she has never had any concerns over her daughter's safety playing with and against boys.

"I am happy that she plays it," she says. "It is her favourite sport. She plays girls football, netball and swimming as well, but the atmosphere and camaraderie of rugby makes it the most enjoyable."

Touring life also held no concerns for either mother or daughter. Jo assists with the running of the mini and youth section at Exiles, and joined the Under 11s for their trip to the UK for the Torquay and South West Coast tournament.

Jo says she would have had no qualms about her daughter touring without her, and Sophie herself adored the experience. Having grown up in Dubai and learnt the game here, it was the first time she had ever played rugby in the rain.

"At first we thought it would be really hard, but at the end of the tour we had 250 points for and 20 against," Shams says.

"It was really cold, and once it rained and we all played in the mud. It was the first time I had played in weather like that and it was great fun. We had all muddy kit and everything got really muddy."

The tour of the UK's west country also gave her the chance to meet her sporting idol, Lewis "Mad Dog" Moody, the England captain. The meeting had a lasting effect.

"My mum went to university in Bath, and we went to Bath and saw him train when he was coming back from injury," she says.

"He talked to us on tour. He wished us good luck, and he told us that when he was little there were girls playing and they were some of the best players.

"We wished him good luck as well and hoped he'd get better, as he was training after an injury."

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