x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Afghans jump into the pack and embrace rugby

UAE's attempts to help the sport grow in the region strikes a strong chord in Kabul, writes Paul Radley.

Aspiring Afghan players take part in trials for the national Under 19 rugby union team in Kabul.
Aspiring Afghan players take part in trials for the national Under 19 rugby union team in Kabul.

DUBAI // UAE rugby's missionary desire to spread the word about the game to previously uncharted territories in the region is a noble one, but they may need to be careful what they wish for.

The national governing body hope to host a four-team sevens competition later this season involving Iran, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, aimed at empowering aspiring Arab rugby players, especially Emiratis.

It is not the first time in the short history of the UAE Rugby Association they have exhibited benevolence towards fellow developing rugby nations.

In April, the Emirati development team, Shaheen, won a three-game series 2-1 against a newly formed Afghanistan national team.

In so doing, however, they might have unleashed a new rugby beast, judging by the news from Kabul this week.

Last year, three players turned up to the first training session for rugby players in Afghanistan. That progressed to the point that they could bring a squad of 10 to the Emirates to face Shaheen at the end of last season.

There has been a boom since.

At a training camp this week, the selectors of Afghanistan's Under 19 team have had a choice of more than 200 young rugby players as they whittle down their squad for the Asian Rugby Junior Championships Division Three, a tournament in Kazakhstan which the UAE are also playing in.

"We also had mini rugby stars [aged five to 14] present during the event and they also gave a very attractive exhibition," said Asad Ziar, the chief executive of the Afghanistan Rugby Federation. "Everyone was clapping for their beautiful rugby exhibition."

According to Steve Brooking, the technical director to the Afghanistan federation, the game is flourishing in the country. "Afghans have a natural aptitude for the game," said Brooking, who said the senior sevens team who played in Dubai are also scheduled to play in the Mumbai leg of the Asian Sevens Series.

"They are fearless and strong, not worried about physical contact, but they need to learn the rules, the discipline and how to work together as a team. Their tour to Dubai was really good, with five days of really helpful training and the players really learnt a lot from the competition. They understood much more about it when they came back."

pradley@thenational.ae

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