ABU DHABI // The expanding scope of women's rugby in the UAE will be in evidence at Zayed Sports City today when novice players compete with seasoned internationals in the Gulf Women's Sevens League.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins, the host club for the fourth round of the eight-tournament league series, won the women's league in 2009. However, the nucleus of that side has broken up, and their latest crop includes a variety of players who picked up a rugby ball for the first time only recently.
They face a daunting task as they try to rein in the region's eminent force, Toa Dubai, who can call on a 61-cap Scotland international.
Veronica Fitzpatrick moved to Dubai with her job in corporate banking in May last year. She took leave from work to line up in Scotland's midfield at the World Cup in England in August.
However, if any of the Abu Dhabi newcomers doubt whether the gap can be bridged, they need only to look to their captain, Helen Martin. She had never played the game before she moved to Doha in 1997. Yet she was soon turning out in international competition for the Arabian Gulf.
"I came to Doha and it was the only sport available to women at that time, along with tennis, so I changed to play rugby," said Martin, whose passion was hockey before moving to Doha.
After eight years in Qatar, followed by three in Germany, she settled in Abu Dhabi in 2007 and was a pillar of the title-winning side two years later.
"The standard [of women's rugby in the Gulf] has gone up tremendously," said Martin, who last year was given an Arabian Gulf Legends award for services to the women's game.
"The girls are much fitter, much stronger and much more aware of the game. Many have played before arriving in the Gulf, as well, which helps because it means they are not learning it from scratch. The standard is far better than when the league first started.
"Toa are definitely the team to beat this year, which is surprising in some ways because the Dubai Hurricanes were so strong last year."
As a marker of the strength of the league-leading Toa side, Fitzpatrick was not even playing when they won the Gulf Women's title at December's Dubai Rugby Sevens.
They beat last season's champions, the Hurricanes, 22-19 in the final at The Sevens, and are in a strong position to add the league title to that crown.
"We have had a different team every tournament, but have still won each one," said John Mamea-Wilson, the Toa coach.
"It is just our time. The standard of women's rugby in the Gulf has improved heaps. It used to just be a one-horse race with the Hurricanes so far ahead. Now they are rebuilding a little and other teams, like Sharjah and Doha, have been improving, and we have been the dominant team lately."