Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

Dubai Rugby Sevens at 50: a nostalgic look back at the origins of the 'family' tournament

Why a tournament that has grown with the UAE is the Glastonbury of the Emirates

An early Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament, started by the Dubai Exiles RFC. Courtesy Peter Thomas 
An early Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament, started by the Dubai Exiles RFC. Courtesy Peter Thomas 

This weekend, the Dubai Rugby Sevens will be held for the 50th time. Fans will journey to the Sevens Stadium for the on and off-pitch action and Kylie Minogue is flying in to perform. It’s no mean feat to have a UAE sporting event older than the country itself.

The tournament was launched by a group of players at the Dubai Exiles RFC. They played on sand with “a handful of fans scattered along the touchline”. At about the same time, Michael Eavis, a dairy farmer in England, decided to stage the Pilton Pop, Folk and Blues Festival in Somerset. The event ultimately became Glastonbury.

The first Dubai sevens games were played on sand pitches. Courtesy Peter Thomas 
The first Dubai sevens games were played on sand pitches. Courtesy Peter Thomas

It is not a stretch to compare the two as they are two events with family and community at their hearts and have grown exponentially. The Sevens has come a long way since it was played on sand pitches and Glastonbury’s £1 (Dh4.75) ticket price is a very distant memory.

Gary Chapman is often identified as a key driver of the Sevens’ success. The president of air services company dnata and a keen sports fan, however, says growing alongside the UAE is the key to the lasting strength of the event.

Both were formed in the same era and we’ve retained that youthfulness of the UAE in our tournament,” Chapman tells The National. While it’s evolved since then and moved to the Sevens Stadium, we’ve retained that grass roots, family friendly feel. The fact the UAE is a melting pot of nationalities also brings a certain buzz to the event, in the visitors, players, our volunteers and everyone else involved.”

Another key person in the early success of the Sevens was Ken Thomas, one of the original Dubai Exiles. Thomas is no longer with us, but his son, Peter, will be in the UAE this weekend to watch the tournament for the first time in decades. He says it is the “family value” of the tournament that is tantamount to its success, a sentiment that Chapman agrees with.

A match on the final day of the 2018 Dubai Rugby Sevens. Reem Mohammed / The National
A match on the final day of the 2018 Dubai Rugby Sevens. Reem Mohammed / The National

“All over the world, sport provides a means to meet people, to form friendships, to have fun and to be competitive,” he says. “With a huge expat community in the UAE who are often a distance from their extended families, building those friendships is probably more relevant. Over the past 50 years, the Dubai Rugby Sevens has started and fostered friendships, I’m sure resulted in marriages, business ventures and it has been an event which generations of families have attended and enjoyed.

In 1979, a clipping from a Gulf newspaper supplied by Peter Thomas to The National looked back at the early years of the tournament, describing it as na “ambitious” project, as they marked its 10th anniversary.

“They had the use of a piece of desert and goalposts … and enough ambition to make the dream succeed,” the article states. Now, 50 years on, it’s safe to say they have come a long way.

Updated: December 5, 2019 04:33 PM

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