x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Building Abu Dhabi Harlequins brick by brick

The capital club progress from humble beginnings and hard knocks to become one of the region's top rugby establishments.

With a little help from adults, children perform skills exercises at the start of the new rugby union season which kicked off in September at Zayed Sports City.
With a little help from adults, children perform skills exercises at the start of the new rugby union season which kicked off in September at Zayed Sports City.

The score of 100-0 tends to turn up only in fanciful expressions such as, "I just hope we don't lose a hundred nil" or, "We should have beaten them a hundred to nothing".

Few have witnessed any game with a final score of 100-0 or met anybody else who has witnessed any game with a final score of 100-0.

Evidently, for that unlucky smattering, 100-0 can fasten itself to memory.

One day in 2003, three members of Abu Dhabi Harlequins ventured to the old military ground where today stands the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

Guy Fulbrook, Richard Harris and Robert Price monitored the club's Under 12s as they opposed the mighty Dubai Exiles on a scruffy pitch in a veritable cage.

"And they were beaten one hundred-nil," Fulbrook, who oversees the vast junior programme, said. "And the look on the guys' faces when they walked off, I just thought, There's something wrong. Because you can't go through your youth being beaten like that.

"It had to change."

And those faces? They remain visible in his mind's eye as desolate, blank, jarred.

And with tears? "No," he said. "They'd gone beyond crying. It was just totally where you've been punched in the stomach."

This past Saturday at Zayed Sports City, Harlequins played host to a massive Abu Dhabi Rugby Festival that registered 1,450 youth participants, up from 600 at the same event in 2005.

It featured teams from Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai, Sharjah, Doha, Bahrain, Kuwait, Russia and the United Kingdom. It included 105 teams and 24 scoreboards. It brought in referees from the United Kingdom.

It resonated professional organisation in an amateur event. It showcased a vast Harlequins club with big-name sponsors and a 550-strong junior programme - up from 50 just 10 years ago - that spans from under fives who do not compete all the way up to U18s who very much do. It further cemented the club as a way of life, and it stood as another of many signals that 100-0 could not suffice because even though final scores aren't paramount among juniors learning a game, nobody much likes 100-0.

One hundred nil doesn't really edify.

"I tell you, the other thing that sticks out," Fulbrook said, "is we used to have shirts but we didn't have shorts and socks so they looked like a rabble. They didn't look right … Ever since then, we always have a kit. Everybody has a membership where they are given the proper uniform."

Among youths, he said: "I think that's worth five points at the start of the game.

"The Exiles, they always looked that much bigger - in black."

Harlequins revamped their entire junior section in 2005 and so on Thursday evenings in 2010, the fruits of that renovation bustle.

A club that once trained at Mina by the port near the dhows and the old fish market on "a little scrub, a little sand," as Fulbrook put it, has settled on the deeply green pitches of Zayed Sports City.

While the club has men's squads, women's squads and a men's veteran squad, Thursday 6pm stands as both training time for juniors and a cog in weekly family dockets.

Many families convene there after the work's week.

And the breadth of the club finds its quintessence in the presence of that rambunctious group over there on the edge of one of the pitches, the under fives.

On other pitch segments gather under sixes and under sevens and under eights and as they square off in non-tackle training matches, the under fives ply their playful drills with, of course, fluctuating interest.

At the end Andy Carre, their coach, calls them together for some reminders. Some even listen.

"Two hands on the ball!" he bellows. "Look at the ball!" "Confidence with the ball!" "We're going to start getting a bit busier, a little more throwing to each other!" "Confidence with other people!"

And: "Sleeping well tonight!"

"It's very much social skills," Carre said. "Hand-to-eye coordination. Sort of gross motor skills, catching and running. Good fun. Something to enjoy … It's like herding cats at that age. They're not going to listen to you 100 per cent of the time, not going to listen to you 50 per cent of the time. They're quite easily sidetracked.

"You know when the day is not going well when they're going off in the sand. If it's not grabbing their attention, they're a harsh critic."

Still, he said, even such unpredictable sprites benefit from the running the miniature drills he designs. They learn the feel of the ball. They gain some camaraderie.

"It's giving them a general sort of coordination," he said. "Getting into the brain those sort of gross motor skills. The earlier you can get it, the better off you are going to be."

People come and go somewhat. His under-fives this autumn have numbered as few as 48 and as many as 64. As a personal trainer who often leads class sizes of 10 or 12, Carre finds an apt word for 50 under-fives: "Crazy." But: "It works. It works well in a very sort of random, crazy sort of way.

"I'm very proud to be part of it. When you look around, when we have the coaches' meetings, when you look around at the assembled body of men, they are professional men who want to do a good job. You've got to give the kids something coherent. The first time you don't, the kids will lose a little bit of faith in you."

The juniors all told, Fulbrook said, boast 36 nationalities. "Soccer is big here," he said, "but rugby has caught the imagination of the expats. And we're trying to sell it to the locals. The Emirati children, they're beginning to come in. We probably have a fair number, probably 10 or 15 coming in."

As the junior Harlequins double as a microcosm for the expatriate flow toward the UAE, so do the seniors mirror another sea change in global culture and reveal again the club's considerable span. Helen Martin, the captain of the Ladies Harlequins, notices an entirely different type of player from 1997, when she first alighted in the Gulf to begin eight years of residency in Doha. It rather epitomises the historically fresh idea of the compelling female athlete.

She had not played rugby when she started in the 1990s; it had not been part of her schooling north of London. She had been a hockey player and a runner. "Girls then more wanted just to keep fit," she said. Women's teams were scarce.

"Now, it's a more serious game," she said. You see "brilliant athletes". As there appear women who did have the option of playing rugby in school, you notice the upgrade in "just the fitness, the general fitness, the all-around skills, the knowledge of the game. Obviously the athletes have been involved in rugby now, and know a whole lot more about rugby now. The girls come to this area having played rugby before and not just picking up the game.

"It's a lot faster, a lot fitter."

The women get "as much teaching and as much time and as much club funds as are required," she said. "We get the same kit, the same opportunity as the men's team." They play away in Kuwait and Doha. Far from leisurely fitness modes of yore, she said: "You're playing at a competitive level where the need is to win and to represent your club to the best of your abilities."

The women play rugby sevens, which Martin prefers for the space and creativity while allowing that aficionados of 15s do disagree. She continues in the 18-to-forever level at age 40, playing alongside and against women whose ages begin mostly with "2" and feeling "a lot more sore and commonly injured," she said. "I'm at the physio all the time."

As a representative of yet another indicator of the Harlequins' growth, she went on Saturday and watched the U18 girls, another group gathering in number. The only hurdle to this upward path is the flux of real life, she said. Women arrive, the Harlequins train them more deeply in the sport and then they move.

Along the way, though, "It's a good way to make friends over here," Martin said. "It's a good social life. It's being part of a team," rather than training solitarily in a gym.

That social opportunity has dovetailed with the more committed tenor in youth programmes to wreak the bustle of the Thursday evenings through the autumn and winter and spring.

"And obviously the bigger a club grows, the more attractive it becomes to sponsors," Fulbrook said. "It starts to feed on itself." School teams visit from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Kenya. The club sells gear including shirts and water bottles and mouth guards.

A tournament such as that of Saturday - distilled to one day in homage to the passing last Thursday of Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammad Al Qassimi - becomes an organisational feat.

All this transpires only seven years after 100-0, five years after the club appointed a junior rugby steering committee and began coaching the coaches.

"The children themselves were talented," Fulbrook said of the team that lost that day.

"They were talented. They had just never been coached well. There was never a structure in place. And the Exiles had something in place."

Nowadays, he notes, the U18s who were U12s then have thrived in a group that trains ardently on a pitch on the other side of the tennis complex from the bountiful juniors. The U12s of two years ago, he also notes, went unbeaten against the Exiles, which has led to a detectable upgrade in U12 faces.

"Now," Fulbrook said, "they're big and smiling."