UAE rugby sevens team will be represented by many nationalities at the Dubai Rugby Sevens, but much needs to be done to entice Emirati players and fans to the game.
Dubai Sevens: Women's rugby game in UAE given a lift
British, Canadian, American, Irish, Belgian and even a UAE-born-and-bred Cameroonian and Brazilian. Just some of the nationalities that will be gracing the Dubai Rugby Sevens starting today. And they all have one thing in common: they will be representing the UAE national team.
While the competition will for the first time include an official IRB Women's Sevens World Series Tournament, this small group of females will in their own way be making a piece of history as they become the first UAE women's team to participate in the invitational series. Not surprisingly, for cultural and sporting reasons, there is not a single Emirati among them.
Theirs might seem a relatively modest achievement, but coming on the back of the UAE becoming the 100th country to secure full International Rugby Board membership, in future years it will be looked back on as a giant leap for women's rugby in the Emirates.
"It's a fantastically exciting time for the UAE, its women's team is part of the invitational event, which is a huge step forward for the women's game in the country," Susan Carty, the Women's Development manager at the IRB, said. "The invitational event has been an important step for international teams to make the step up and will eventually serve the wider development of the women's game."
It has been a landmark year not just for UAE women's rugby, but for the game around the world. Women's sevens, as well as men's, will be an Olympic event at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
In the short term, the inaugural global series will get underway in Dubai, moving on to Houston and Guangzhou, before finishing in Amsterdam. Then, the ultimate prize: the World Cup Rugby Sevens in Moscow in June.
"It's quite exciting that it's kicking off here in Dubai," Carty said. "We had the World Cup in 2009, which was the first women's World Cup integrated as part of the men's event, and it was a massive success. And last year was the first women's Challenge Cup here in Dubai and there we saw it attract great crowds. The excitement around it and level of interest was really impressive."
Today, the women's game is played in more than 100 countries and by over one million players, according to the IRB. And it is set to grow further, especially after gaining the stamp of approval from the International Olympic Committee.
Wayne Marsters, a member of the UAE rugby board and manager of both the women's and men's teams, said: "Kids are now looking at rugby and saying, 'That's another way I can go to the Olympics'. If the recent reaction is anything to go by, many are already putting their hands up."
Rugby remains an alien sport to most Emiratis, men and women. Getting them on board will not be an easy task, but the women's team are certainly doing their part.
"Everyone likes to see their national team, it might not be the top women's division, but it is the next one down," Marsters said. "The ultimate goal, of course, would be to have a team made up of Emirati women. But even for men we're taking baby steps, so it will take a lot longer for Emirati women."
For now, it is down to this group of foreigners to fly the flag. And for them to represent the UAE a minimum three-year residency in the Emirates must have been completed.
Yon Smith, the UAE women's captain, is under no illusions about the difficulty of the task.
"The difference between us and other teams is that we all have regular jobs, while other teams are all professionals aiming to be at the next Olympics."
Smith, an American of Peruvian origin, said: "We have to get up very early in the morning to train before heading off to work."
Still, such adversity in itself is a great incentive to perform at a higher level.
"It picks up the intensity level knowing that you are playing against professionals," said Smith, who has been playing rugby since she moved to Dubai eight years ago, and was part of the Arabian Gulf team under Marsters in previous tournaments as well as the UAE team in the recent Asian Championship in India.
It is the spirit of this "well-rounded group" that Smith believes will help put on creditable performances. But she has one small regret.
"It might be a little disappointing to some people not seeing any Emirati girls in our team," she said. "But it's disappointing to us, too. Many of us, as teachers, are always telling our students, 'Look how other countries are pushing their girls to represent them'."
Few fans will hold it against the team. In fact, as the nation celebrates National Day, the make-up of the team is perhaps an accurate reflection of its diverse society.
Whatever the results this weekend, the efforts of those representing the UAE women's team will be appreciated and supported, both by Emiratis and expatriates.
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