Thousands of young rugby stars in action at Abu Dhabi youth tournament

Volunteer parents are a driving force behind grass-roots success of the sport

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Thousands of young rugby players will take over Abu Dhabi this weekend for a community-powered festival of sport.

The Harlequins Junior Rugby Tournament, which is being staged at the capital's Zayed Sports City, will welcome more than 2,800 players aged between five and 18, for two days of thrilling entertainment on Saturday and Sunday.

The hotly-anticipated event has been organised by Abu Dhabi Harlequins, one of the emirate's longest-standing clubs, with more than a little help from a small army of passionate volunteers.

Hundreds of helpers, many of them parents of players, will act as coaches, team managers, pitch marshals and medics to ensure the festivities run smoothly.

“The work that goes behind organising a tournament like this is enormous. There are 500 volunteers, most of them parents who step up and help organise the tournament. It is a true community event,” Candice Woodhead, manager of the Harlequins junior team, and a volunteer herself, told The National.

A total of 217 rugby teams representing 12 clubs across the UAE will take part, all relishing the opportunity to show off their skills after previous events were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

United by a love of the game

Abu Dhabi Harlequins have a thriving youth set-up. Photo: Harlequins

“Many of the volunteer coaches have been training players without any pay for years. This is a community united by the love for rugby,” said Ms Woodhead, whose husband Angus Woodhead is the chairman of the club.

Her two children, Harrison and Bella, are also playing in the U16 boys and U18 girls category respectively.

An Australian who moved to the UAE 12 years ago, Ms Woodhead said the club, fully run with the help of volunteers, is one great rugby family.

“We have been involved with the club since our children were five years old. It is a lovely community to play rugby in the Middle East. We are so lucky to be part of this.”

Established in 1970, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, also known as the Quins, are a key part of the community with more than 1,000 active members ranging from the age of 4 to veterans, including all female teams at U13, U15 and U18 level. The club has a junior and senior section, for both girls and boys.

For rugby lovers and children who want to play sports outside of their school, the Quins offer an affordable platform, said Ms Woodhead.

“Kids pay Dh2,000 to Dh2,500 as annual fees for the season. And that comes with free training, a kit, insurance and access to weekly matches.”

'It's great to be back'

The well-established rugby club has a variety of male and female teams covering several age brackets. Photo: Harlequins Abu Dhabi

Radwa Allabban, a long-time Abu Dhabi resident and mother of three boys playing in the Quins' U13s, U9s and U6s sides, can't wait for the big kick-off on Saturday.

“After a long break, if feels wonderful that the children are finally able to play and compete again after the pandemic.

“At the upcoming tournament, I am volunteering to support a small army of parents, that is pulling out all the stops to organise a brilliant and fun experience for our children and the other junior rugby teams joining the Quins from around the UAE.”

Garry Haynes, an aircraft engineer with Etihad Airways, is a parent who also volunteers as head coach of Quins; under 13s team.

“There were many, many children, and a few coaches. I have an affinity for kids and I decided to get involved,” Mr Haynes told The National.

His two boys, aged 12 and 14, also play for the club.

He finds time after work to hit the pitch and coach children for an hour, twice a week on Monday and Friday.

Similarly, Canadian couple Jason and Jen Kennedy who moved to Abu Dhabi in December last year from Qatar, says they found an “instant community” with the Quins.

The couple have three daughters aged 7, 10 and 12, who all play for Harlequins.

He is a head coach for the under-13 girls team and his wife Jen, is a team manager.

“It is a warm, welcoming family that gives great opportunity to play sports, especially for girls,” said Mr Kennedy, who works in the oil and gas sector as an operations manager.

“Playing rugby is important for them. But it also helps them learn team spirit and a sense of growing up in a community.”

Updated: November 05, 2022, 7:43 AM