DUBAI // The UAE will field an international rugby team for the first time next year and will immediately be pitched against the best sides in Asia, under the terms of a landmark deal agreed yesterday. The Arabian Gulf, the entity which has represented the eight GCC countries in international competition until now, will disband at the end of this year, as part of an IRB-led revamp of the sport in the region.
At the end of last season, the Gulf secured their place in the top level of competition in the continent, the HSBC Asian Five Nations, by way of victories over Hong Kong and Korea. The Gulf will have been delisted as a member of the IRB by the time the tournament is played next year, which had led to some confusion as to who would fill the vacancy at Asian rugby's top table. But the UAE Rugby Association (UAE RA), the new national governing body, has accepted a conditional offer to enter a soon-to-be-established UAE side in the competition.
Their entry is based on them meeting a set of criteria as laid out by the Asian Rugby Football Union and the IRB. "The UAE RA has confirmed they will meet those criteria, and I am working very closely with them to bring that to fruition," Matt Oakley, the IRB's West Asia project manager, said. The association has committed to engaging with the management team and those players formerly attached to the Gulf who are eligible to play for the UAE.
Furthermore, they have committed to host two international Tests, one of which will be televised, and travelling to two away games in the Asian Five Nations. Perhaps of greater concern for the majority of rugby enthusiasts here will be how the landscape of club rugby is about to change. In order to smooth the transition, the UAE RA has invited Gulf Rugby LLC, the new name for the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union, to continue to organise domestic rugby on their behalf, by way of an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the two bodies yesterday.
Oakley, who has been overseeing the movement towards change in his role with the IRB, believes the MoU will assist the UAE RA's bid to attract Emiratis to the game, as well as keeping long-serving expatriate players happy. "Our meat-and-drink rugby is going to carry on as always, but now will be overseen by a national association," Oakley said. "[The UAE RA's] rightful agenda is to promote rugby amongst Emirati youths, and sevens is the medium for that, especially looking towards [the 2016 Olympic Games, when sevens will be played for the first time]."
Qais Abdullah Aldhalai, the deputy general secretary of UAE RA, said: "We know in four or five years time we need Emiratis to represent our team. To play in the Olympic Games, you need to be a passport-holder." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org