Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Emirati girls ‘knew rugby was a sport for boys’ but are proving it is for them, too

DUBAI // Under the floodlights at the Rugby Centre at Dubai Sports City, a set of expatriate players with multicoloured boots and smart, orange playing kits that are awash with sponsor logos, line up for a training game.

Opposing them are some Emirati girls, without a uniform playing kit, most wearing trainers, and almost all cutting an unlikely figure as sports people.

Neither side seems to know quite what to expect. Kick-off happens. The Emiratis receive the ball, and it finds its way into the hands of Asmar Marwan, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Dubai.

Suddenly, she steps, cuts a sharp line through the middle of the defence, busts through a variety of would-be tacklers, and dots the ball down over the try-line.

The first try of the match elicits a roar of approval from a group of supporters wearing hijabs. The opposition, meanwhile, exchange the sort of glances that suggest: “Ah. They mean business. This is serious.”

Which is a nice way for new teammates to get to know each other.

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“I just gave it a try at school,” Asmar said of her introduction to rugby. “At first I didn’t know how to throw the ball, how to catch it.

“But I saw another school playing the game, and after that I fell in love with it. I like the pushing, the running. I also like jiu-jitsu, so I like physical sports.”

Now she is one of eight girls from her school who play regularly, and who have agreed to join up with Arabian Knights for extra training. And, it is hoped, some game time, too.

The UAE Rugby Federation took their first tentative steps at introducing the sport to Emirati girls in 2013. Ahead of this season, they have had nearly 40 actively involved on a regular basis.

According to Sami Smara, the federation’s rugby development officer, they did not start out the scheme with high expectations.

“In the beginning, to be honest, we thought it was a big challenge, maybe impossible,” Smara said. “But we asked them to come and play with the Knights, and they did. We found that they enjoyed the challenge.

“They knew rugby was a sport for boys, and they liked the challenge of proving they could do it, too. These Emirati women like the challenge, and they want to be competitive.

“It was a surprise, and this result was not expected. But we are very happy about it.”

Smara said the chance to represent the country has been a major incentive for the girls to continue playing. The federation hope to have a UAE national team involving Emirati players for the first time at this year’s Dubai Sevens in December.

According to Maryam Al Hay, 16, who has caught the eye as a player of promise due to her speed, representing the UAE at sport would be a reason for great pride.

“Being the first girls to play rugby for UAE would be something special for us,” Al Hay said. “It would be so great.”

In an attempt to fast-track the development of the novice Emiratis, the federation appointed an Arabic-speaking female development officer, the former Tunisia international Ameera Ben Fkeeh, this summer.

They also sought out an established club to partner up with. Unsurprisingly, they followed a path they had been down before, by asking if the Knights would help out.

The club, based at Dubai Sports City, have a sizeable junior and community presence. It was they who gave many Emirati players their first start in senior men’s rugby, too.

Since that time, rugby among Emirati males has gathered pace, with leading players heading off to join Premiership clubs like Abu Dhabi Saracens, and the Shaheen development side playing regular XVs rugby in the Community League.

It is hoped an alliance between the Knights and the federation will bear similar rewards for women’s development, too.

“The federation’s pathways for Emirati boys, in terms of the Shaheen, etc, have been working very well, but until now they haven’t had it for girls,” Chris Bath, the Knights coach, said.

“There have been taster sessions in schools, but there is no point having development unless you go to the next step — which is to play a game.

“The Emirati boys started with the Knights, so it was a natural progression for them to come to us with the girls as well. I was implying to them at the start of the season that we could do with players, so this was a natural fit.

“What can we do now? An integrated side is what the Knights want, and what the federation want, too. It is the quickest way to get these girls to learn.”

The early signs are that both parties are more than happy with the arrangement. The Emiratis have the chance to learn from experienced coaches, as well as players who have been playing for years. And the expatriates know they can bolster their side with new talent.

Alex Duggan, a 14 year old who has been playing for the Knights since she was nine years old, said the arrangement is a good one.

“It is nice having different cultures in our team,” Duggan said. “They were tough, which really surprised us when we were playing. Having them as part of our side will really help, as there are some strong girls.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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Updated: October 4, 2016 04:00 AM

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