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An Austin Powers lookalike entertains fans between matches during the Dubai Sevens.
An Austin Powers lookalike entertains fans between matches during the Dubai Sevens.

Expats are behind Dubai Sevens' popularity

The growth of the Dubai Rugby Sevens is due to the continued support of the UAE's vast expatriate population, organisers say.

DUBAI // The growth of the Dubai Rugby Sevens from its humble beginnings into a major event on the global sporting calendar is due to the continued support of the UAE's vast expatriate population, organisers said last night. The three-day rugby showcase, which finished yesterday, was attended by more than 40,000 people, with a further 750 million watching on television around the world.

It was a far cry from the first tournament, in 1969, which was played on a sand pitch in Al Awir, and watched by no more than 250 people. Over the weekend, as well as the supporters - many of whom went to take in the entertainment and atmosphere, apart from the rugby - the sheer scale of the event was evident in the hundreds of officials, technicians, and the world's media. Last year 50,000 people turned up for the largest Sevens yet. But, despite its international profile, the tournament remains a social event.

Donal Kilalea, the tournament director, said the large expatriate base in the UAE was the key to the Sevens' success. "The large expat community assured interest in the event and helped it grow. "In 1969, there were 32 local sides participating and this has expanded to 161 social teams featuring this year," he said. "It was always a big social event in Dubai even before it was an international tournament and the social side is still a crucial element to its success."

The mixture of nationalities and the carnival atmosphere created by the blend of cultures and colours was again on show yesterday as fans waved flags and sang to support their teams. One of the tournament's most cherished traditions, fancy-dress costumes, was on full display yesterday. "I was talking tactics with Bananaman earlier, but then we joined a conga dance with a group of cavegirls," said Tom Gibbons, 26, a fan from England.

"That is what the Sevens is about - having fun and meeting people from all over the world. "The costumes get more outrageous and extravagant every year. The rugby is an excuse to have a party." This year, an exhibition celebrating the history of the event vied for visitors' attention with the bouncy castles and kids' zone of the entertainment village. Charles Nou, 36, from Fiji, said it was the mixture of cultures that made the event such a success.

"Dubai is home to people from all nations and this creates a special atmosphere," he said. "Expats feel closer to home by ensuring their team gets the most vocal support. "The pictures of games being played on sand are amazing. It is a global event now but still just as fun and friendly." Rugby sevens has been given Olympic status for London 2012, which will help establish it as a professional sport.

With more clubs than ever before and a successful programme to introduce Emiratis to the game, Mr Kilalea believes that the UAE has the potential to become a leading rugby nation. "Rugby sevens will become a dominant sport in the UAE and the [Dubai] Sevens has provided the platform," he said. tbrooks@thenational.ae

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