x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

How the UAE can close gap in rugby

For the UAE national rugby team to grow its players need to be in a professional league full-time.

UAE struggled to get to grips with Japan during the 111-0 defeat at The Sevens in Dubai last week, a result which illustrated the chasm in class between the two Asian sides. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
UAE struggled to get to grips with Japan during the 111-0 defeat at The Sevens in Dubai last week, a result which illustrated the chasm in class between the two Asian sides. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

The UAE will play off against Hong Kong tomorrow for the right to be regarded as the second-best side in Asia.

There will be no gongs handed out for the achievement. The successful side will have to be content with the kudos of being regarded as the best amateur rugby nation on the continent.

Fast-forward eight years, and being the second-best team in Asia will likely have a far greater significance.

Given that Japan - the continent's No 1 rugby nation by a distance - will be hosting the World Cup, another place could be open to an Asian nation to qualify for the game's showpiece competition.

The process could happen even faster. If Japan deliver on their goals at September's World Cup, they could become one of the 12 automatic qualifiers for the 2015 edition, hence freeing up another qualifying berth for Asia.

All of which throws the disparity between Asia's top side and the rest into harsh perspective.

On Friday, Japan beat the UAE by 111 points. Last year, Hong Kong were 92 points in arrears.

On the world stage, however, the flat-track bullies of Asian rugby have often suffered themselves. At the last World Cup, they lost a group match to Australia 91-3.

The numbers suggests a second Asian side in a World Cup would face an onerous task, but Japan's coach, John Kirwan, thinks it is possible to close the gap.

"It is a hard ask [but] the future is through competition," Kirwan said. "We are 13th in the world now, so there are still teams nine places behind us who can play in the World Cup.

"We were 19th four years ago. Yes, it is a hard ask, but … the pressure is on the whole of Asia to create a competition where these guys can go out and play at a high level of competition week in, week out."

Last week, Kirwan floated the idea of teams such as the UAE, Hong Kong and South Korea joining Japan's domestic league so that their players would be exposed to a higher standard of competition regularly.

Even if the idea seems unfeasible under the current financial conditions, it struck a chord with those serving at the coal face.

"Is it something we can do? I think so," Mike Cox-Hill, the UAE captain, said. "It is something that will require special circumstances, and a move towards a professional infrastructure, so it is a case of getting the funding, like Kirwan said.

"With the interest we have generated in UAE rugby development this year, looking five or 10 years down the line, it would be possible.

"We would need significant backers to put the wheels in motion, but these things are entirely possible.

"The great thing is, we are so embryonic we can really steer the ship in the direction we want to go.

"Hopefully with the results from the national team coming in, the youngsters and Emiratis staying involved, this is all progress heading in the right direction."

All of the UAE players are committed to full-time jobs before they can even think about playing rugby. The contrast to Japan is stark, where clubs are bankrolled by corporations, allowing them to pay their own indigenous players and cherry-pick some of the world's best, as well, such as George Smith, the former Australia captain, who recently signed a deal reportedly worth Dh41 million per year to play club rugby in Japan.

The likes of Digby Ioane, of Australia, and Mils Muliaina, the New Zealand full-back, are rumoured to be next.

It is a different world to that inhabited by the part-time players of the Emirates, but Bruce Birtwistle, the departing UAE coach, says the concept is exciting.

"That would take a real step in terms of professionalism here, because of the length of time that would have to be spent in that competition, but that is something to aim for," Birtwistle said.

"It is encouraging to hear that from [Kirwan]. I think it is something that could be achievable. I think we could compete at that level. If Japan would entertain that, I do like that idea."

Ian Bremner, the chief executive of the Rugby Association, insists the idea will remain a dream until a self-sustaining infrastructure for the game has been developed here.

"Our difficulty is that the gap that is clearly there at the moment is one that is between amateur rugby and professional rugby," Bremner said.

"How do you make those significant strides? We have a unique game here, which is heavily expatriate without any layers or pathways underneath that.

"We can't transplant professional rugby into the UAE overnight. We have to develop some sort of systems that improve our game.

"The resource that would be needed for that at this moment in time is like a dream, rather than something that could be turned on like a light tomorrow."