DUBAI // As the public address announcer at The Sevens put it yesterday, you know a tournament must be good when it is older than the country it is staged in. The Dubai Rugby Sevens is celebrating its 40th year this weekend, having been initiated by a group of expatriates who worked in the construction industry when the UAE was still the Trucial States.
Much has changed in the intervening time. When the Staffordshire Regiment claimed the first title, they had to nurse the scars of sand burns from the pitches at the old Dubai Exiles site in Al Awir. Tomorrow's title is likely to be won in front of more than 40,000 fans, on immaculate grass pitches at the new home for Middle East rugby, 40 minutes further into the desert, by a professional international side, who play in a series that has stops all over the globe.
Paul Treu's South Africans won their maiden IRB series last year, and are revelling in being tagged as favourites here to win for the second year in a row. Of their rivals, England are best placed to upset them at a venue they regard as their second-home, while New Zealand and Fiji will be seeking a return to the days when they shared duopoloy on the Emirates International Trophy, between 1995 and 2002.
This year also represents the start of a new era for the sevens game, as nations put the building blocks in place ahead of an Olympic future. Which means rugby's traditional powers might start to be reined in by some Olympic giants. "We want to look at keeping the traditional game, 15s, growing, but I think this will give us the avenue to attract that professional athlete who wants to be an Olympian," said Al Caravelli, the coach of the United States sevens side.