x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The cash registers are ringing and a young coach is in charge of ‘massive rise in professionalism’, writes Paul Radley.

Xodus, as the renamed Dubai Wasps (in white) have been active on the recruitment and commercial fronts. Satish Kumar / The National
Xodus, as the renamed Dubai Wasps (in white) have been active on the recruitment and commercial fronts. Satish Kumar / The National

Last season, a fixture between what was then the Dubai Wasps and Dubai Exiles was a battle of the also-rans.

How times change. When the two clubs reacquaint themselves at The Sevens this evening, it will be a confrontation between the corporate bigwigs of the domestic rugby scene.

The nominal home side at the shared home venue are now known as Xodus Wasps, reflecting a new sponsorship deal penned in the summer with an energy consultancy group.

The terms of the agreement allowed Wasps to transform the way they approached training and preparation over the off-season.

Instead of scrapping with the rest of the public for patches of land at Zabeel Park, they have been able to train under the professional guidance of Apollo Perelini at Repton School.

Their fund-raising drive has also brought them to the brink of an agreement to sell Wasps replica shirts in some of the country’s major sports stores.

Bearing in mind many Arabian Gulf League professional football clubs are still some way off doing the same, it is quite a feat for a three-year-old amateur rugby club.

Their new financing might have helped bridge the gap of 40-odd years of experience to their opponents today, had the Exiles not been investing in a similar programme themselves.

The city’s oldest and largest club agreed to a seven-figure deal with AIG, the same sponsors who back New Zealand rugby.

These are heady days for finance departments within club rugby. Not long ago, the representative team for the region could not sell the space on the front of their shirts for international matches, even after resorting to eBay.

“I believe the future of rugby in the Gulf region is rapidly gaining momentum,” the Wasps chairman Craig Gibson said.

As evidenced by the AIG and Xodus deals, he said.

“This clearly shows there is a wider interest in the platform, and I believe it will continue to spur growth in the game, the quality of players, and the competitiveness of games, particularly across the top-tier clubs in the Gulf.”

Commercial savvy will get a club so far, but Wasps have been as busy in the recruitment market as they have in the boardroom over the summer months.

Among a raft of new recruits at Wasps are two players formerly on the books of English Premiership clubs, Oliver Turton and Josh Ives.

The playing squad has been bolstered further by the arrival of Victor Sudi, a former captain of the Kenya sevens side, and his colleague from the World Sevens Series, Victor Odour.

Overseeing the emergence of the side on the field is the youngest head coach in the domestic game, Laurence Parker, who is just 24.

“Having such talented players coming in has made training far easier,” Parker said.

“We have seen a massive rise in professionalism from our team. Even just making the effort to wear our Xodus Wasps kit to training has set a tone. The boys are giving themselves a hard time if they drop the ball or don’t do well at training, so it has really increased the standards.”

Parker says the aim for the new campaign is to break in to the established top four, and not necessarily just by inching into it. “Our aim is top four, but preferably a top-three finish,” the coach said.

“We obviously know who the strongest two teams are in this league [Jebel Ali Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins], but we are confident if everything goes right, we can break into the top four.

“If you want to be the best team in the Gulf you have to beat the best teams and we want to put ourselves in the position to do that.”