UAE rugby gets set to give youth a chance

Paul Radley reports on the upcoming return of UAE age-group sides to Asian competition.

UAE rugby's Roelof Kotze will send teams to a U19 XVs tournament a U20 sevens tournament next month, Antonie Robertson / The National
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DUBAI // UAE rugby will go back to the future next month when its age-group sides return to Asian competition.

Given a variety of prevailing factors – some temporary, others long-standing – the powers that be could be forgiven for approaching the coming challenges with trepidation.

From December 11 to 14, the new UAE Under 19 side will play in a four-team competition against teams from nations with a combined population of approximately 1.5 billion.

Given that the catchment area in the UAE is small, especially for 18 year olds, it may seem like an unfair fight when the national team play India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

The UAE’s prospects are likely to be hampered further by compulsory military service, injuries, work commitments and studies.

Roelof Kotze, the performance manager, and Ben van Rooyen, the development manager, are also working out how best to juggle playing resources with a U20 sevens tournament in Hong Kong set to be played a week later, too.

“Our guys play a lot of rugby, and good rugby at their clubs, schools and academies, so I am confident,” Van Rooyen said.

“On the other hand, most of our players are U18s and we are playing in an U19s league. Kids here leave the country the moment they finish school.”

The conundrum about keeping talented players in the system once they leave school has always proved difficult to solve.

The majority go abroad to study or work, and often do not return. As such, the UAE squad for the trip to India next month is likely to have more U18-qualified players than U19s.

However, they are bullish about their chances of success in Division 3B of the Asian age-group competition ladder – and rightly so.

Despite the comparatively minuscule pool, schools rugby in the UAE has a high standard. As many as 55 players showed up for the opening trials, and three sessions in, the coaching staff have already started to pare down the squad.

Unlike the sevens programme, which is exclusively open to UAE passport holders, the U19 side will see the best expatriate players combined with the best available Emiratis.

Qais al Dhalai, the secretary general of the UAE Rugby Federation, expects the age-group side to be competitive when they get to India.

“The XVs programme is open for everyone,” Al Dhalai said.

“The doors are open for expatriate players and Roelof has received many nominations from all clubs.

“We will pick up the best of those 50 or 55 players, allied to the leading Emiratis, and that will form the basis for the UAE U19s side.”

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