x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A trek with Harlequins to Bahrain and rugby glory

Paul Radley accompanied Abu Dhabi's Harlequins when they flew to Manama for the last final of the Danway ?Gulf Cup to be played under Arabian Gulf jurisdiction.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins leave the field following their match with Doha yesterday.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins leave the field following their match with Doha yesterday.

The Arabian Gulf will play their final match as a combined entity today, before the players disperse to their various outposts in the region. Most of them will never play together again.

Judging by the start of the new season, the future of club rugby in the region might not look a whole lot different to what went before, even if foreign travel is now kept to a minimum.

For 40 years, amateur rugby players in the Middle East have clocked up the miles in search of their weekend sporting fix. Competition has been sustained by regular cross-border travel to clubs in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and beyond.

However, thanks to the combined effects of the global recession, as well as the impending restructuring of rugby in West Asia, these air, sea and road trips are now kept to a minimum.

Earlier this year, The National took a trip to Bahrain with Abu Dhabi Harlequins for the Danway Gulf Cup final - the last major 15-a-side event played under the Arabian Gulf union's jurisdiction.

"Living with the Lions" it certainly was not. More like "Hurrying with the Harlequins". It did, however, provide an intriguing insight into the lengths players go to for a game of rugby with their mates.

7.30am - While the majority of the population enjoy a Friday morning lie-in, the UAE's sports-lovers hit the road.

On the way from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, I make a stop at Jebel Ali services. Also upping their caffeine levels are two people in the trademark yellow T-shirts of Dubai Hurricanes - they order latte, the drink of choice for the discerning rugby player - and an Emirati man wearing a Dubai Swimming polo shirt.

Nearer to Abu Dhabi International Airport, a sports car overtakes. A father is in the driver's seat, with a young colts player riding shotgun, heading, no doubt, for the capital club's home ground at Al Ghazal Golf Club.

The Harlequins are involved in five finals today, from under 10s level, all the way up to the senior men making the trip to Bahrain. Five years ago, the club had 96 registered junior members. Now there are more than 550.

9am - One player who has come through said colts system, Jason de Boize, is part of the 25-man Abu Dhabi tour party heading to Manama.

The teenager is the only South African passport holder in this squad, and as such represents the most likely problem in terms of admission to Bahrain.

He makes it through passport control in Abu Dhabi without a hitch, but seasoned campaigners know the job is only half done.

On away trips in years past, players have regularly arrived at opposition airports only to be refused entry. On one occasion, two South African players were turned away on arrival in Kuwait, diverted to Doha, and had to wait all day and night for a flight back to Abu Dhabi.

Two other South Africans have had to miss this cup final because they do not have the requisite visa.

As well as providing cover for the front-row, de Boize is also tasked with carrying the National Bank of Abu Dhabi banner, which is wrapped up in cellophane at check-in, to Manama.

Space has been reserved on the pitch perimeter at the ground and, with the match set to be televised, it is a perfect chance to earn brownie points with the sponsors.

10.30am - As the plane takes off, Ahmed al Bader, an aircraft engineer who plays on the wing for the Quins second XV, has his nose in an English-Arabic translation book.

As one of the relatively modest contingent of Arabic speakers involved in rugby in the region, the Bahraini national is being taken along to assist with commentary on the game.

Bahrain Sports are airing the match live, the first time it has happened for a domestic match in the Gulf, and the transmissions are being made in English and Arabic.

Ahead of his television debut, al Bader is noting a list of words which need translating, such as "scrum" and "line-out".

12.10pm (Bahrain time) - The Quins are well aware of the difficulties that face away sides in Bahrain. As such, they have booked a team room in the Ramee Hotel, in which they will while away the time in comfort before kick-off.

Looking after the "critical non-essentials" in this way was famously a key part of Sir Clive Woodward's World Cup-winning masterplan in 2003.

The former England manager did have a sizeable war-chest of RFU funding with which to operate, however. The fact the amateur rugby players of Abu Dhabi are afforded such luxuries - however relative - is a testament to resourceful management.

The only financial contribution the players have to make to away days like this is via their annual membership subscription at the start of the year. The rest is looked after by key sponsorship agreements.

The game has only survived here this long thanks to the philanthropy of a variety of rugby-loving endorsers. Since the global financial slowdown began, the strain has started to show, but Abu Dhabi remain in rude health.

As the players settle in at the Ramee, ahead of their buffet lunch, they sift through copies of the Bahrain Tribune to see if there is any potentially inspirational, anti-"them" material to put up on the dressing-room walls.

Sadly, the Gulf Cup rugby final does not warrant a mention. The local volleyball and basketball leagues find good real estate on the sports pages, however.

2.30pm (Bahrain time) - As the team bus delivers the players, who have already changed, to the ground, an agitated MC seeks out Richard Harris, the Abu Dhabi chairman.

The man on the microphone is also serving as the English television commentator for Bahrain Sports, and needs some player biographies.

"This isn't much to go on," he says, wielding the basic team sheet and musing on how to fill 80 minutes of commentary without any extra information. It is probably not a problem Abu Dhabi's management have ever faced before.

3.40pm (Bahrain time) - Talking of travelling, as Abu Dhabi and Bahrain trade blows on the field, David Clark, the Arabian Gulf captain, is spotted playing with his son on the swings in the playground behind the main stand.

Anyone who opts out of a weekend away trip just because they do not fancy the hassle should consider the case of the Scottish No 8, who is one of the Gulf's longest serving players.

Clark lives in Bahrain, yet travels to Dubai almost every weekend to play home matches for his club side, the Exiles. Now that is just showing off.

5.15pm (Bahrain time) - The Quins walk a tightrope before clinching a satisfying 6-5 win on enemy territory. Their celebrations seem rather isolated among the 600 or so dejected home fans.

Unlike in Abu Dhabi, and even less so in Dubai, the rugby club in Bahrain is centred in the expatriate community. As such, they are extremely well backed.

It is hard to believe the club will not continue to thrive even when the league is restructured at the end of the season.

The Abu Dhabi players cheer their triumph during their post-match warm-down in the club's swimming pool. It looks like rugby-player soup.

Even though this glory is still current, Alistair Thompson, the victorious captain, is hardly misty-eyed when he ponders the idea that foreign travel like this could be a thing of the past come next season.

"When it is week in and week out, it is tough," he says. "Guys don't come to Abu Dhabi to play rugby. They come for work, they have families, and it is a big ask to come away for a full day.

"We were lucky with Bahrain that there is a choice of flights. Usually we have to be at the airport by 8am and not back till midnight. It worked in our favour this time."

7.25pm (Bahrain time) - With Swiss watch-precision timing, the Quins players are dropped at the airport for the return leg of their journey.

There is just enough time between check-in and boarding for these toned sportsmen to gorge themselves at McDonald's.

As the players spin-pass the trophy between themselves with all the dexterity they employed using the ball earlier in the day, cabin crew prepare for what might well be a boisterous flight.

10.15pm (UAE time) - The domed ceiling of Abu Dhabi International Airport's Terminal One provides remarkably good acoustics as 15 butch men in celebratory mood break into a medley of Elton John songs.

There have been definite parallels with the senior international game about today's trip. Booking the team room at the hotel before the final had faint Woodwardian-echoes.

The trophy itself was manhandled with such frivolity that it is likely to bear a few scars now, recalling the time John Jeffrey and Dean Richards played football with the Calcutta Cup along Princes Street in Edinburgh.

And, upon their safe return to the UAE capital, the victorious players are now looking forward to the type of heroes' welcome reserved for champions.

As they round the corner ready to accept the acclaim, Tom Fisher, the side's centre, raises his arms ... and is confronted by two bemused Indians and a slightly shocked Emirati family.

That heroes' reception will have to wait.

pradley@thenational.ae