x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Dubai schoolgirl’s netball gain is rugby’s loss

Sophie Shams, 13, is still three years too young to be permitted to play her first sporting love, rugby, in the UAE women’s league. Happily, the teenager has a variety of options, and has turned to netball.

Sophie Shams, 13, prefers the contact in rugby but as she is between age disciplines with the sport she has turned to netball to sate her need for competitive sports. Lee Hoagland / The National
Sophie Shams, 13, prefers the contact in rugby but as she is between age disciplines with the sport she has turned to netball to sate her need for competitive sports. Lee Hoagland / The National

DUBAI // An Emirati schoolgirl who is too old to play mixed rugby but too young for the senior women’s game has been told she could instead excel at netball.

Sophie Shams, 13, is still three years too young to be permitted to play her first sporting love, rugby, in the UAE women’s league.

Until recently, the Dubai College schoolgirl was one of the standout players in mixed junior rugby teams that were otherwise dominated by boys.

Her powerful defence and leadership qualities earned her the captaincy of her primary school side at Jumeirah English Speaking School.

She is highly regarded in the sport and still trains with her school team, as well Dubai Exiles and Hurricanes senior women’s sides, but is now unable to play matches.

“It is annoying because I have played with them since I was five and now I have had to change it,” she said. “I still train with them but I am not allowed to play competitive rugby with them because I am a girl.”

Happily, the teenager has a variety of options.

She has spent this Eid holiday week training under the guidance of Sonia Mkoloma, a professional netball player in Australia and former England international, at the Dubai Netball Academy (DNA).

“When Sophie was with us last year she was doing one morning of rugby, one morning of netball, and this year it is all netball,” Mkoloma said. “She is a good all-rounder and I know that whatever sport she goes into she gives 100 per cent in terms of commitment.

“Hopefully, she will still get the chance to play rugby, but she also excels at netball. Whatever she chooses to do she is going to succeed in it.”

Mkoloma thinks a variety of skills are transferable from rugby to netball — even if the latter is a non-contact sport.

Ironically, given that no collisions are permitted in the round-ball game, Shams still prefers the defensive side of the sport. However, she concedes that old rugby habits sometimes die hard and she occasionally lapses into contact-mode.

“I have played lots of different positions in netball but my favourite ones are in defence,” she said. “In all my sports I’m a defender. That’s where I play in football, and I find that’s where my natural talent lies best.

“I have to say I give away quite a few contacts in netball, and I get to five fouls very quickly when I’m playing basketball.”

Having a coach of Mkoloma’s pedigree as a guest coach this week is invaluable for Shams and her netball-playing peers, according to the DNA coach Angela Boyle.

Boyle founded the academy in 2002 and regularly coaches around 180 girls between seven and 15, and she says having an international player of high repute helping out is inspirational.

“The aim is to get these girls to a level where they are ready to play in the ladies league and capable of playing and challenging themselves there,” Boyle said. “It is inspirational for the girls to have someone like Sonia coaching them, and it brings out that little bit extra in them because of her experience.”

It is the second time Mkoloma – who played for England at three Commonwealth Games, three World Championships and two World Netball Series – has coached in Dubai.

She says players have improved noticeably since her previous trip here, 12 months ago.

“I can see the standard has improved from when I was here last year,” she said. “It is 90 per cent the same girls as last year and they have progressed so quickly.

“A year is a big gap and they can either lose it or improve. Most have improved.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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