ABU DHABI // The UAE's victory over Kazakhstan on Friday night provided a landmark moment for rugby in the Emirates — and it could eventually prove far more significant to the story of the sport in this country.
The Asian Five Nations match was the UAE's first win at Test level and, following their draw in Sri Lanka, the nascent national team remain undefeated in the two matches since they replaced the now-defunct Arabian Gulf in international competition.
As they sought to close out the eventual 24-10 success, two Emirati players, Cyrus Homayoun and Ali Mohammed, were sent on to bolster the UAE's victory push.
When it was achieved moments later, the win was celebrated with gusto not solely by the 22 players who had earned it, but also the UAE nationals who had come to support. It was an unusual sight on a rugby field.
In the past, the only time any significant number of khandouras have been spotted at rugby matches has been on fancy-dress day at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.
On Friday night, there were a number of Emiratis sporting national dress in the small VIP stand. Not only did they have an avid interest in the game, but most have an active role.
Saood Belshalat, a UAE Rugby Association (UAE RA) board member who is now permanently involved with the full national team, has had a longer constant involvement with the game than any other Emirati.
He was the team manager of the Dubai Falcons, the first Emirati side to compete at the Dubai Sevens, in 2005, and was granted a place on the board of the new association as soon as it was set up.
The win over Kazakhstan meant just as much to him as it did to the bloodied players who came off the pitch.
He said: "To have a draw and a win so far, how good can that be as a start for the UAE? It is a very good, unexpected start. We are on fire. I never thought coach Bruce [Birtwistle] would put Cyrus and Ali on the field, but it was something amazing to see them play their first international game."
The board are so keen to project Emiratis as the new face of the game here that they sent Homayoun, rather than captain Mike Cox-Hill, to Hong Kong for the official Asian Five Nations competition launch and photo session.Buoyed by their success on the field, the UAE RA also hope to roll out their new buddy scheme between Emirati schools and established club sides shortly.
"We want to raise the numbers and the standards in the local population," said Ian Bremner, the UAE RA chief executive.