x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

After relegation from Asian Five Nations, what lies ahead for UAE rugby?

Paul Radley goes over the many posibilities in front of the UAE national rugby team after they were relegated from the top tier of the Asian Five Nations.

The UAE drives up the pitch during the first half of their 24-8 loss to the Philippines last weekend. The UAE finished without a win in the Asian Five Nations. Mike Young for The National
The UAE drives up the pitch during the first half of their 24-8 loss to the Philippines last weekend. The UAE finished without a win in the Asian Five Nations. Mike Young for The National

Many theories have been voiced as to what UAE rugby should do to become players on the continental scene again, after a disappointing season that culminated in relegation from the Asian Five Nations on Saturday, following a 24-8 loss to the Philippines.

In the wake of this weekend's demotion from Asia's flagship competition, are any of them genuinely feasible?

Go semi-professional

This seems to be the default viewpoint when everything goes wrong: the game must go semi-pro. That or, more needs to be done.

But how? It would require significant financial resources in a country which is hardly enthralled with rugby.

Yes, the Dubai Sevens is one of the biggest events on the UAE's sporting calendar, but outside of that, rugby realistically remains a niche sport.

Pros The players would have no excuses not to become the best they can be. Handled correctly, with the best-suited players identified, their day jobs would be involved in the development of the game.

Cons The prevailing employment conditions in the UAE hardly make this a viable option.

What employers are realistically going to sponsor employees to focus on sport before work, with no potential dividend for them?

The union does not have much disposable income and clubs here do well if they break even, let alone think of generating enough profit to pay players.

The domestic game generally survives on the philanthropy of a few rugby-loving sponsors.

What do JA Hotels, for example, get out of sponsoring West Asia's leading club, the Dragons?

Other than the warm, fuzzy feeling that they are doing their bit to help, and some food and beverage takings, not a great deal, you wouldn't imagine.

Gate receipts are hardly going to help the shortfall, either. When will the UAE ever be able to charge people to watch their national team, let alone club matches?

Pay players a pro-rata fee

OK, so UAE rugby survives on a shoestring relative to many other nations, but there are still dirhams floating around.

The UAE powers that be pride themselves on the fact they are the only sport that does not pay players, yet still retain a healthy number of them. But maybe they need to.

Pros The UAE national team have a strict no-train, no-play policy. That does not float the boats of many leading players, so how about rewarding aspiring national-team players for getting there?

On a sliding scale starting at Dh1,000 - double if they are travelling from another emirate - for first through the door and down to Dh100 for, say, to the fifth. That would definitely make training more appealing.

Cons This does not need to be a massive financial undertaking, but it would mean diverting funds from other areas like development.

It could have a damaging effect if the inducements were ever taken away. And the same player won the top award every week, his colleagues might suggest that he get a job.

Send players to Japan

This theory was initially floated by the former Japan coach, John Kirwan, in 2011.

His side, en route to the World Cup, went on to thump the national team 111-0 in Dubai and he probably never paid the idea another thought.

Pros The leading players would jump at the chance of testing themselves against the best, in regular competition, and with the chance to advertise their wares to professional clubs while they were doing it.

Look at the amount of domestic players who are away touring at leading sevens competitions at present for evidence of that.

Cons Would require huge sponsorship, as the team would effectively have to be at least full of semi-professional players, if not fully professional.

With a five-hour time difference between Dubai and Tokyo, the players could not conceivably commute or hold down day jobs.

Follow Hong Kong's example

This old chestnut was floated by Wayne Marsters, now the UAE's rugby manager, back in 2008, when he was in a similar role, albeit as caretaker, for the Arabian Gulf. Pity nobody acted on it, due in part to the subsequent transition from Gulf to UAE rugby, as it seems perfect.

Marsters himself has been to Iran and back in the meantime, and returned to find a sport in stasis.

The two countries have similar populations and demographics. Why the disparity between them is so large is concerning.

Pros Hong Kong have reached No 29 in the world on the back of a structured programme of long-term commitment to players.The domestic league benefits from the presence of semi-professionals, a number of whom act as development officers for the union.

With an expatriate and transient population similar to the UAE, it proves top players can be retained in the system.Knowledge-sharing would be possible, too. The two nations enjoy a good relationship in rugby, even if Hong Kong are reaping all the benefits at present.

Cons Hong Kong rugby is well-heeled because their union enjoys a better deal from their Sevens event than their UAE counterparts do from the Dubai version.

As such, the funds to follow similar programmes would need to be located by other means.

Follow cricket's example

The sport that rugby most resembles in the UAE is cricket. The national team in each is exclusively expat: western in rugby and subcontinental in cricket.

Yet while the rugby team are apparently making no progress on their world ranking of 96, cricket survives contentedly in the teens, and is looking up.

Pros Many of the country's leading cricketers were first brought to this country from the subcontinent by cricket-loving employers looking to bolster their staff team.

Honestly.

Emirates Airline, for example, has special conditions for players to miss time work if they are representing the UAE at sport.

The effect on the game if the same happened in rugby would be dramatic. Finding companies to fund this, however, especially when recruiting from countries with a higher per-capita income, would be tough.

Cons It is not close to happening in rugby. "For all our players, be they expatriate or Emirati, they all have the same problem, that their employers in this country are not supportive for time off work to train, let alone go and compete," said Duncan Hall, the UAE performance manager.

"When I played, you took your time off work, but you had your job to go back to.

"That is the way it is at the moment, but the board and our admin in the UAE rugby federation are working towards better relations with employers so we can keep players in the system for longer than six months or one campaign."

pradley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE