DUBAI // When Wales and Zimbabwe take to the field at The Sevens today, they will not only kick off what promises to be three days of high-octane rugby but reflect the leap made by the sport in Dubai in recent years. In two decades, it has gone from a game played by a ragtag group of expatriates on sand pitches to a highly organised operation with facilities at least on a par, say world officials, with those of any other country.
Around 30,000 people are expected in the stadium every day this weekend as 40 teams battle for glory, although the true impact of the event may not be felt for some years to come. Tournament organisers hope it will finally wrest the sport from its expatriate roots. Ghaith Jalajel, development officer for the Arabian Gulf Rugby Union, said the event had already helped promote the sport in the UAE.
"Hosting the World Cup has provided us with an amazing and unique opportunity to establish rugby as a leading sport in the region. You cannot overestimate the impact it has had in generating interest and participation in the game, especially among Arab nationals. While the Arabian Gulf team has generally been dominated by expatriates, a development programme was recently launched by the union to identify local rugby talent.
The Arabian Challenge, a tournament exclusively for Arab players, took place on Feb 27. "The Arabian Challenge has also acted as a showcase for local talent and some players have been signed by exiles' teams as a result. Playing with established teams can only help their development and make them more competitive players and give them the opportunity to challenge for a place in the Arabian Gulf team," Mr Jalajel said.
Kit McConnell, head of Rugby World Cup at the IRB and the man tasked with developing it as a global sport, said the tournament would help establish a rugby culture in the Middle East. "Dubai should be very proud to host what will be the biggest Sevens World Cup in history, with 40 teams and 640 athletes," he said. "It will also be remembered as the first time women have been incorporated into the main Sevens World Cup, which is one of the most significant successes for the sport in recent times.
"The new Sevens stadium is one of the best rugby venues in the world and was a key part of Dubai being chosen to host the tournament. Together with passionate local support and good weather, Dubai put together a compelling case. "We also hope that the tournament will leave a legacy to the region, both in terms of infrastructure and promotion of rugby in the area. The Arabian Gulf team have improved dramatically and we expect a strong performance from the hosts."
From inauspicious beginnings, the Arabian Gulf Rugby Union has steadily grown so that it now has permanent offices and full-time development staff at the state-of-the-art 50,000-capacity Sevens complex. While hosting the World Cup is a real coup, however, it is only the first step in an ambitious plan to join the top teams in the IRB series. Mr Jalajel said: "The Dubai Sevens has been a very popular tournament and given us the opportunity to gauge our performances and development against the world's leading teams.
"But we hope that an eye-catching performance while hosting the World Cup will help make a case for becoming a permanent part of the IRB series, playing tournaments across the world. That is the ultimate objective." Although rugby is not one of the sports that receives government funding, the establishment last month of a representative body, the UAE Rugby Association, paves the way for further development and regulation of the game in the region.
"It will provide the framework for sustainable growth and professionalisation of the game. The Arabian Gulf Union will work closely with them to help ensure the World Cup leaves a legacy to rugby in the region," Mr Jalajel said. Dominic Rumbles, communications manager of the IRB, says all teams will bring a passionate band of supporters that will help create a carnival atmosphere this weekend; live TV coverage will be shown in more than 200 countries, helping to promote Dubai as a sports tourism destination.
"The Sevens is about forging links between nations," he sad. "It is an opportunity for people of different cultures to mix and share enjoyment of the game. Sevens is a great vehicle for spreading rugby's core values of comradeship and friendship." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Four-page special, pages s7-10