x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Arabian Gulf players could be lost to the game

The break-up of the Arabian Gulf rugby team could leave players not based in the UAE without a chance of playing international rugby again.

Michael Cox-Hill, centre, runs through the Korean defence during the Gulf's last ever match on Friday. Under the IRB's new laws, players can only represent their country of residence.
Michael Cox-Hill, centre, runs through the Korean defence during the Gulf's last ever match on Friday. Under the IRB's new laws, players can only represent their country of residence.

DUBAI // There is one obvious benefit of the break-up of Arabian Gulf rugby which is immediately apparent. From now on, the players will only have to worry about learning one set of lyrics to the national anthem. 

During the 17 years the Gulf spent as an international rugby team, which came to an end on Friday night when they beat Korea, the players stood shoulder to shoulder through the anthem of whichever of the six GCC countries was hosting them that day.

With a line-up that has always been almost exclusively expatriate, the players have had to be creative when it came to singing along to the tunes. David Clark, the No 8 who has been one of the Gulf's greatest servants over the past decade, has always been one of the most vocal. Whatever music is playing, he sings the words to "Will Ye Go, Lassie Go", a folk song from his native Scotland. Whether Clark will get the chance to play for the UAE in the future is still uncertain. Although he plays his club rugby for the Dubai Exiles, he lives in Bahrain. Like many of the Gulf squad, his future eligibility, which, as per the current IRB laws, is based on residency, is shrouded in mystery.

"Some of the guys are in the rugby wilderness now," observed Mark Gathercole, 43, the Gulf's most-capped player who played his 33rd Test match against Korea. "The thing that concerns me is for guys like James Love. He is from Bahrain, so now how does it work? Is he allowed to play for the UAE? He is up there, so theoretically, he can't play for the UAE side." Love, the student winger who was the Gulf's leading point-scorer in the Asian Five Nations, may now be lost to international rugby, despite sparkling in his debut season.

He was born and brought up in Bahrain, a country with just a single rugby club, who are not likely to be equipped for competitive international rugby for some time yet. Taif al Delamie, an Omani national who lives in Ireland, is hopeful he will be granted the chance to choose to play for the new UAE national team next year. "There is still a certain degree of uncertainty as to what is going to happen when the Arabian Gulf disbands and each union has its own representation," he said. "We still don't know how it is going to work out. I'm just going to wait and see what happens in terms of whether I am available to play for UAE, or Oman, or how it is going to work. Whatever happens, I will still be playing rugby.

"Will the opportunity be there for us to play together again? That is what we are worried about." Gathercole himself is undecided on whether to continue or to hang up his boots. The prop said: "The game is in my blood and it is a massive part of my life. "It is hard to walk away. I'll take some time out and see what happens. I said that this would be it and I would retire from rugby. I think that is what I want to do, and that I want to finish it now."

The Gulf signed off with the biggest scalp of their history, with a tense 21-19 win at The Sevens over Korea, a side ranked 25th in the world. "The pinnacle of any rugby player's dreams is to play international rugby," said Mike Cox-Hill, the Gulf captain. "Over 99 per cent of the world's rugby players don't get that opportunity. To have the privilege to do that and to lead the Arabian Gulf has been a huge honour.

"To finish it off with a win over Korea is phenomenal. I wouldn't change it for the world. The camaraderie and brotherhood that has been built, we will cherish forever." Asian Five Nations leaders Japan made it three wins out of three yesterday as they thrashed Kazakhstan 101-7.

pradley@thenational.ae