x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Gulf hoping to reap what they have sown

Governing bodies in sport have a habit of talking in grand terms about an abstract and utopian future.

Captain Stephen Cooper is hoping his Arabian Gulf team emerge from the shadows at the Sevens World Cup.
Captain Stephen Cooper is hoping his Arabian Gulf team emerge from the shadows at the Sevens World Cup.

DUBAI // Governing bodies in sport have a habit of talking in grand terms about an abstract and utopian future. Their default setting of management-speak means statements tend to be littered with phrases like "development pathway" and "growing the game". But does it ever really happen? Do we ever actually have anything tangible to show for all the talk?

Consider the case of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU). Beginnings could rarely have been more humble. When Chris Matthews, an unknown part-timer living in Bahrain, crossed the line three minutes in to the Gulf's first ever match - an Africa zone World Cup qualifier played in Kenya in 1994 - the other 14 players barely even knew his name. The side had been cobbled together in a short space of time by a group of expatriates who loved playing rugby.

Despite their incredible start, they eventually subsided to a 64-20 defeat to Namibia. Fifteen years on, the Gulf are playing as the home side in a 50,000 capacity stadium at a World Cup in Dubai. Who would have thought it? Andrew Cole, the new chairman of the AGRFU, was a player in 1994. Having played national league rugby in the west of England, he had moved to Abu Dhabi as an independent financial broker in 1992.

"There were six players who met in a villa, ran to the beach and trained on the beach," he recalls of the early days in the capital. "In the off-season I found a guy [Patrick McGuinness] who had played for London Irish and was working at the embassy. "He also spoke Arabic, and we managed to get in to speak to the right people so we got on train on a grass pitch at Al Wahda's football stadium. "We were the first club who had grass facilities and we suddenly had 50 guys who came out of the woodwork."

Times have changed. The game has come so far in the region that the IRB plan to reconfigure the multi-nation union, which was an anomaly within the IRB membership, to create new, standalone federations. On the field, the most recent Gulf vintage, who start their campaign against Tonga at 5.30 tonight, employ a full-time fitness coach, and have toured Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Malaysia and Sri Lanka this season.

Progress is real. However, they are a still way from being mighty oaks, according to Mike Lunjevich, the long-serving coach of the sevens side, who has is trying to dampen expectations ahead of the weekend. He said: "There has been a bit of media coverage and talk of greater things, but we haven't done anything yet. "We are coming into a World Cup as a team who people will target and want to score points against.

"When we do something and when we perform, then we can talk about how good we are. Right now we have to make sure people focus on their roles on the pitch. "It has been a team effort by all the guys who have been involved over the past nine months, they have all helped to get us where we are. "The 12 who have been picked are the lucky ones, they need to do it for all of us." @Email:pradley@thenational.ae