x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

For UAE rugby sevens, a home side not just in name only

But expatriates who have pulled on the UAE shirt say Emiratis are still a long way from the international standard, writes Paul Radley.

Ali Mohammed, right, is one of 11 players on the UAE national team's seven-a-side squad that is made up primarily of Emiratis. Courtesy of Elite Step
Ali Mohammed, right, is one of 11 players on the UAE national team's seven-a-side squad that is made up primarily of Emiratis. Courtesy of Elite Step

We get used to living life in fast-forward in this part of the world.

The world's tallest building? We will have that up in no time.

What about building a national rugby team peopled fully by Emiratis, in a sport for which there is no historic pedigree or interest among the indigenous population? At its inception, the plan sounded more far-fetched than building a palm-shaped island in the sea.

But eight years after a clutch of Emiratis stepped into the unknown by playing Local Social matches at the Dubai Sevens, there is now a full side playing representative rugby for their homeland.

For the first time, the game's officials aim to pick exclusively Emirati players for the sides that represent the UAE in international competition.

Too much too soon? The staying power of this group of pioneers will be put to the test, based on last weekend's Malaysia Sevens series, when the team suffered a string of hefty defeats.

Yet home-grown players need to find their own way at some point, so why not now? That is the view of Mohammed Abdulrahman Falaknaz, the chairman of the UAE Rugby Federation.

"It could be demoralising, but we hope to give them a boost," Falaknaz said.

"It takes time. You have to wait for good things to happen. The players are only young and we don't care about the score this time.

"What we care about is giving them the competition and for them to play as many games as they can.

"All I wish is that they keep well and away from injuries. Other than that, we have all the time to reach the other levels."

How did we get here?

"We need to get into schools and help promote the game," was historically the refrain when it came to the idea of promoting rugby here.

In terms of Emirati schools, it was generally lip service - though not through a lack of goodwill.

Before the advent of the UAE Rugby Federation on January 1, 2011, there was neither the means nor the knowledge to put a proper development programme for nationals in place.

Now there is a dedicated schools initiative piloted by Wayne Marsters, the New Zealander who is the UAE rugby manager.

Five of the players picked for this weekend's trip to Kuala Lumpur are products of the Emirati Player Pathway (EPP).

"It is working," said Falaknaz.

But for all the good that has been done, has there been a massive spike in awareness of the oval-ball code? Judged by the skewed measure that is social media, rugby apparently enjoys unparalleled popularity. At noon on Monday, there were 31,000 followers for the official rugby federation feed on Twitter.

It is a suspiciously high strike-rate for its 50-odd tweets. By contrast, the UAE Football Association have a mere 13,000 followers, and that is indisputably the No 1 sport here.

It is also 4,000 more than Saracens, the long-established former English Premiership champions, can boast.

'Our right' to represent UAE

"It was the best feeling I have had in my life when I got to wear the national team shirt," Majid Al Balooshi said last year when he became the first product of the schools programme to represent the UAE.

"When I am wearing this shirt, I never ever want to lose any game."

With the best will in the world, if an expatriate ever said that, it would not be quite so believable.

Having the chance to represent your homeland is the dream of any aspiring sportsman.

"The expats understand because it is an Emirati right," said Saood Belshalat, the federation board member who is the longest-serving Emirati rugby administrator.

"Think about it vice versa: playing in England, it is the right of the English. Some countries give expats passports if they are really, really good, like in Qatar.

"But we are living in a country where there is a vision to have Emiratis playing the game - whatever sport it is. This is our right."

Despite never having played the game himself, Belshalat has a long standing affiliation with rugby.

He was the manager of the partly Emirati Dubai Falcons side who debuted at the 2005 Dubai Sevens.

Now, in his role on the executive board, he is keen to see full Emirati participation.

However, he acknowledges he was moved by the fact some expatriate players learnt the national anthem before wearing the UAE shirt in the past.

"These expats have shown that the UAE is not just their second home - it is their home," Belshalat said. "The way they played against Japan and these others teams, they were bleeding for it.

"It showed they loved representing the team they were playing for."

Is it safe?

Picking a fully Emirati sevens squad is one thing. A full XVs side is very different.

When eight big men pack down together at scrum time, it is a dangerous place to be, even for the most experienced rugby players.

The powers that be have a duty of care to their players. Picking a novice player in the front row for a full Test match could potentially have dire consequences.

"I don't think they would be cavalier enough to think they could put a full front row together," said Pete Sampson, a South African hooker who would love to add to the caps he has won for the UAE in the past.

"There are one or two front-rowers who hold their own at club level, such as Mohanned Shaker.

"But playing against 185kg props from Kazakhstan is a completely different ball game. I think that would be genuinely quite dangerous."

Despite the risks, the federation are considering the possibility of a full-Emirati XVs side for their forthcoming commitments.

"There are challenges in terms of numbers and positions," Belshalat said.

"We will consult with everyone in the union to see if it is possible to be 100 per cent Emirati, and if it is, we will not hesitate."

The expatriate majority

So where does all this leave the remaining 99 per cent of rugby players here?

Expatriates have been the lifeblood of the UAE game for more than 40 years.

While the national team's fortunes have waned in recent times, the domestic league is thriving.

Talented players, many of whom are former professionals, are everywhere.

Many highly skilled amateur players have opted to move to the UAE in the past with the knowledge that they could be playing international rugby within three years.

Will that continue?

"Guys who come over here to play competitive rugby always have it in the back of their mind, they might be able to witness international rugby after three years," said Alistair Thompson, the former UAE captain. "We played Japan in Japan and lost by 100 points. Would I go through that again? Of course I would. It was a fantastic experience.

"Ultimately we are visitors in this country, but Emiratis are a long way away from being ready to play at international level."

Sampson added: "A lot of guys have been here for three years and are dying to get involved in international rugby.

"Now they might go somewhere else if that opportunity is to be taken away from them."


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