UAE Shaheen to compete separately in the Goa Sevens, but administrator Saood Belshalat says next step is to increase the pool of local players.
All Emirati rugby team 'is a start'
DUBAI // The UAE will field a squad made up exclusively of Emirati players for the first time in an international competition this weekend, when UAE Shaheen play in the Asian Sevens Series in Goa.
The 12-man squad, selected from players in the Rugby Association's Emirati development programme, will play in a pool against China, Kazakhstan and the hosts, India.
A senior national team, made up of experienced expatriate players, will also play in the other pool, which includes Hong Kong, Singapore and Iran.
Saood Belshalat, who has been involved in rugby for the past six years, and as such is the longest serving Emirati rugby administrator, hopes Goa will represent the start of something significant for rugby among UAE nationals.
"The dream is starting to come true," Belshalat, who was the manager of the first Emirati side to play at the Dubai Sevens in 2005 and is now a Rugby Association board member, said. "Having 12 players is not enough in a country like the UAE. We need to target 120 local players - but this is a start."
Belshalat was in charge of an Al Ahli Knights side who, representing the UAE, won a tournament solely for indigenous Arab players in Dubai in 2009, and many of the Shaheen players graduated from that squad.
"Maybe these players will become UAE heroes one day," he said. "Perhaps in 10 years time young Emiratis will say they want to be like Yousuf Shaker, or Mohammed Hassan Rahma.
"We want the number to go from 12 Emiratis to 120 Emiratis, then by the next generation for it to be 1,200. We have to start somewhere, and this is it."
UAE Shaheen - meaning "Falcons" - went undefeated when they played in the second-tier competition on the opening day of the new UAE Sevens Series at Jebel Ali Dragons on Friday.
The tour party to India this weekend enjoyed a further confidence boost when the senior national sevens team won the top tournament at the weekend.
Entering two sides into the third leg of the Asian Sevens Series seems a remarkable turnaround, bearing in mind the problems the UAE had previously.
They travelled to Borneo at the end of September with just 11 players, after Stephane Imbert had to withdraw at the last moment, while Shane Thornton, their then coach, was also unable to travel.
However, the lure of a chance to play in front of 40,000 people at the Dubai Sevens in three weeks' time, as well as the decision to field the Emirati development side, suggests all is suddenly well.
"Numbers are still not fantastic, but to put two teams in is a real first," Wayne Marsters, the rugby manager, said.
"They [Shaheen] will be playing against China and Kazakhstan and other big names of Asian rugby, so it is really good."