Gulf rugby at the crossroads
The next eight months represent an uncertain period in the evolution of rugby in the Middle East. After the ascent from sand pitches, to becoming a fully fledged international team, through to fielding a sevens side at a World Cup on home soil, the future is suddenly unclear. Given the lengths the rugby community in the Gulf have traditionally gone to get their weekend sporting fix, it is a surprise they remain such a nervous bunch. However, there has been a perceptible unease among a growing majority in the two years since the International Rugby Board (IRB), announced plans to restructure the sport here.
The deadline is now looming. Barring an unlikely sequence of events which could yet see them qualify for the World Cup, the Arabian Gulf will play their last match as a 15-a-side outfit in a fortnight's time. Funding permitting, they will pitch a side into the Dubai Rugby Sevens for the final time in December. Following that, the picture becomes rather less clear. Andy Cole played in the side which first competed under the banner of the Arabian Gulf, a group of expatriate players who quickly assembled to take part in a World Cup qualifying tournament in Africa in 1993.
Now he is the chairman of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU). Yet, despite all his qualifications, he still cannot give a definitive answer as to what rugby will look like here this time next year. "We can't commit to keeping administrators on, or development officers on, because we don't know where the funding will be from beyond 2010," said Cole. "That is the problem." On December 31, the AGRFU will cease operations in their present form, and hand over the running of the game to the nascent, Emirati-led UAE Rugby Association (UAERA).
Saood Belshalat, the longest-serving Emirati administrator involved in rugby, is now a board member of the UAERA. He initially came to the sport five years ago, when a team with a core of UAE nationals, named the Dubai Falcons, played at the Sevens for the first time. The Falcons morphed through various guises until the start of this season - by which time they were the Al Ahli Knights - when they joined forces with the expatriates who had hitherto been their coaches, and formed Toa Dubai.
"To be honest, I did not expect what has happened to us in rugby today to have happened five years back," admitted Belshalat. "Back then we were at Safa Park, or at my house, throwing a ball around. I never knew back then that one day I would be a board member. "I never knew that one day we would have a squad of 45 players that was purely local. It is a good thing for the national team. "I don't know what the game will look like in five years' time. But if everything progresses the way we are planning, we will have a good team."
What passes for "good"? The representative side for the area currently participates in the top tier of Asian competition, meaning they are officially among the continent's best five sides. That in itself is a fine feat, bearing in mind the relatively small catchment area, the prevailing weather conditions which make playing rugby tough for much of the year, and the overwhelming popularity of football.
It is also doubly impressive considering the turnover of players in the senior side. Only four members of the 22-man Gulf squad which played in Kazakhstan last weekend made the trip there the last time the sides met two years ago. The transient nature of the workforce in the Middle East means the amateur players who make up the representative side usually only have a short shelf-life. As per the rules of the IRB, they have to be here for three years at least before can even start playing for the national team. In expatriate terms, they are starting to become veterans by then.
The fact the Gulf held an early 14-0 lead against a Kazakhstan side who were runners-up in Asia's top competition last year was a noteworthy effort. They eventually went down 43-28, but as Trent Eastgate, the Fiji-born, Australia-raised Gulf centre said: "What we did showed we can perform against these teams who have been in these competitions a lot longer than we have, showing that the standard in the Arabian Gulf has picked up.
"We are now competing par-on-par with them. By being ahead at the beginning it shows we are not just competing but sometimes passing them." However, the side is falling a long way short in one vital aspect: namely the lack of Arab players. Rugby has been played in the Gulf for more than 40 years yet, on the surface at least, appears to be run solely as an expatriate clique. In recent years, the AGRFU have made moves to correct that failing, most notably by appointing an Arabic development officer, Ghaith Jalajel.
Yet the process was too tardy in the eyes of some significant observers. The IRB ordered the restructuring of the game here partly because it had grown impatient at the slow progress made in spreading the game among the indigenous population. A solution was hit on: devolve the eight-nation union, and empower the countries to broach the issue individually. But setting up a new Association run by Emiratis is one thing. Getting nationals to take to the game is completely different.
The UAERA have a plan. "Every team should have a minimum of two locals to play in our tournaments," says Belshalat, whose association will be charged with running competitions here from the end of the summer. Not surprisingly, the UAERA have met with some stern opposition in some quarters, but their intentions have been applauded by others. "There is a complete lack of local players, whether they are Emirati, Bahraini, or whatever," observes Richard Harris, the chairman of the UAE's leading club, Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
"There has been no real move to get them playing. Now we are in a situation where there are going to be rules which state you have to have an Emirati in your team. "I think what the IRB are doing in principal is very good. It is exciting because we could have stronger unions where more people are playing rugby and there is greater local participation than we have currently. "If you want to grow the game, if you want to see dramatic change, you have to take it to new audiences, and into schools. In the UAE, there is effectively an entire population which doesn't play."
Harris believes there are parallels with his native South Africa. There, controversially, administrators attempted to correct the ills of apartheid by imposing quotas. The major difference, according to Harris, is the fact there has hitherto been an almost complete lack of participation among Arabs. "The quota system worked to an extent in South Africa because there were massive numbers of black players already playing the game in their own leagues," he adds. "If you had a guy who had never played before, you played him on the wing and he was crunched, it wouldn't work.
"We need to have a core greater than 100 Emirati players here. It is not necessarily a case of having a quota, but of having a target in mind, and say, for example, Abu Dhabi must have 50 Emirati players in their ranks by the end of the 2012 season. It is a case of going into Emirati schools and coaching the coaches, training the PE teachers so they know about the game. It is a virgin canvas, so let's start painting it."
One area the UAE hardly wants for is top-quality coaching. Before moving to Dubai, Bruce Birtwistle, the head coach of the full Gulf side, earned a reputation as a coaching kingmaker back in Auckland. Among other success stories, he turned a young nobody called Sione Lauaki into an All Black. Further down the food-chain, junior development has been thriving of late, with tangible rewards. This winter, Tom Ogilvie, a pupil at Jumeirah College, was granted a trial for his native Scotland. The Wellington International School sixth-former, Duncan Yates, meanwhile, has been invited back to attend pre-season training at London Wasps next year.
In the form of the Transguard Elite Sporting Academy (Tesa), based at Repton School in Dubai, the UAE is already blessed with the ideal template for a national academy. Apollo Perelini and Trevor Leota, the ex-Samoa internationals, are in harness there coaching rugby. Importantly, Tesa also have a keen grasp of how to make the game appealing to Arabs. John Mamea-Wilson, the director of the academy, founded the Dubai Falcons back in 2005, when, as a personal fitness instructor, he directed an Emirati teenager towards rugby as a way to get fit.
"Going forward, I think there will be heaps more focus on developing Arab and local rugby," says John Mamea-Wilson, who is also the captain of Toa Dubai, who were one of the first to sign up to the new UAERA. "I think priorities will have to change. There will be more focus on development than the elite teams." Such sentiments are key to the mission of the UAERA. "The plan is to keep moving forward," adds Belshalat. "We have a strategy to reach the goal that we want, and a lot of people involved now are asking: what is going to happen to rugby? What will change?
"In terms of development, we want to improve it. We want to make it 10 times better than what it is. We have the facilities, at Dubai Sports City, at The Sevens, so we should take advantage of that. "It is not our sole aim to get nationals into the game. Our main goal is to keep rugby alive, and to build on the success of the Dubai Sevens, because it is the best event of its kind in the Middle East. There is nothing else like it.
"Of course there are going to be changes, but they will be for the better. We know, from speaking to the clubs who have been playing the game for a long time, the struggles they have, and we want to fix it for them. We are working with everyone to improve rugby." firstname.lastname@example.org