DUBAI // Arabian Gulf bosses have moved to reassure worried players that the presence of the giant former international hooker Trevor Leota in the Emirates League, the second tier of club competition in the country, does not present a safety risk for opposing players.
The Samoan front-rower, who played Top 14 rugby in France last season before moving to the UAE, made his debut for Toa Dubai in their 88-0 Gulf Bowl win over Riyadh Falcons on Thursday. Some of Toa's opponents have expressed concern that a player who was regarded as one of the hardest in professional rugby union could present a risk to amateur front-rowers in the scrum. Martin Southern, the Arabian Gulf's rugby services manager, said: "Trevor is a world-class player who will be aware of the level of rugby that he is now playing. Scrums will be a safer place to be with a vastly experienced international player in there and he can be a great development asset for front-rowers new to the game."
Some of the evidence of Thursday evening's fixture supports Southern's view. Riyadh's pack actually pushed their hosts back at the first two set-pieces of the match when Leota, 34, was playing at hooker. Leota, who will be working as a scrum coach at the Elite Sporting Academy in Dubai, spent most of the game advising the young players - and not just in his own side. More relevant may be the question of whether the new club have been placed a division below their abilities by being pitched into the Emirates League rather than the top-flight Arabian Gulf Premiership.
In a fortnight's time, for instance, the contrast could well be stark when Toa face the Arabian Potbellies. The Potbellies' customary warm-up, a hearty rendition of the hokey-cokey, differs significantly from the drills run by Toa's three ex-Samoan internationals. The club have refuted the suggestion they are playing beneath themselves, pointing to the large contingent of emerging Arab players, including a number of Emiratis, in their ranks.
John Mamea-Wilson, the club's founder and fly-half, said: "I think we are definitely in the right division. "It is all about depth. Perhaps with our first choice side we could compete with the top clubs, but if you take the top six guys out of our side, we would struggle. "I think it is the perfect platform to help develop our young guys, which is the whole point of our side." Simon Hill, the coach of the Riyadh Falcons, said his players were honoured to play on the same field as Leota.
He said: "There was immense pride from our players in moving the Toa scrum backwards early on. "Few people get the opportunity to play with or against players of his calibre, and as long as he is aware of the damage he can do to others, and is able to temper that, I don't have a problem with it. "If he is going out to destroy opposition each week, then that is a different question. He spent time coaching the players around him during the game and that can only be a good thing."
Hill also empathises with Toa's mission statement. Both Toa and Riyadh included several players who were taking part in their first game of 15-a-side rugby. Hill said: "It would appear Toa have the same intention as us, to develop local players. I just wish we had a bunch of ex-internationals on our books who could provide the same inspiration and mentoring." firstname.lastname@example.org English round-up, s7