x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ian Bremner keen to spread rugby to nation's armed forces

"We have to look at ways of growing the game, and then how can we make a fast track. We are close to getting the seeds planted," says the UAERA chief executive.

Rugby union in the UAE is played almost exclusively by expatriates, something Ian Bremner, the chief executive of the Rugby Association, is keen to address with more Emiratis taking up the game.
Rugby union in the UAE is played almost exclusively by expatriates, something Ian Bremner, the chief executive of the Rugby Association, is keen to address with more Emiratis taking up the game.

Dubai // Given the history between the sides, and the relative merits of the players from whom they have to pick, this is no time for the UAE to start feeling envious of Sri Lanka, their hosts in the opening match of the 2011 Asian Five Nations.

A number of the UAE squad making the trip to Colombo this weekend played under the banner of the Arabian Gulf when they easily dispatched the Sri Lankans in Division One two summers ago.

The Sri Lankans are making their debut at this level, while the Gulf has been represented in three of the four seasons since the Asian Five Nations was set up.

Neither do the UAE want for much in comparison from a governance standpoint.

Sri Lanka, who have a history of political infighting, briefly had their membership with the International Rugby Board (IRB) downgraded recently, as the game's governing body ordered them to get their administrative house in order.

However, there are many aspects of the sport in Sri Lanka which the UAE Rugby Association (UAERA) would be glad to imitate.

As a relic of British rule, rugby has long been entrenched in Sri Lanka, where the first organised club matches date from 1879, just eight years after the English Rugby Football Union was set up.

The sport persists in the leading schools, with matches between the biggest rivals regularly drawing crowds in excess of 10,000.

That contrasts markedly with the Emirates. The UAE Premiership, the top level of club rugby in the country, seldom attracts crowds of even three figures, let alone five.

Of specific interest to the new governors of the game here will be the role played by the armed services in the sport on the Teardrop Island.

The army, navy, air force and police all have sides in Sri Lanka's top league, and they usually have the pick of the leading schoolboy players when they leave education.

Among a variety of wide-ranging initiatives planned to grow the game here, the UAERA is hoping to introduce the sport to the armed forces in a bid to boost the number of Emirati players.

Ian Bremner, the chief executive of the fledgling organisation, which took over the running of the game here last summer, wants to create "special circumstances" in which Arab nationals will adopt the game.

Few Emirati players have ever played rugby at a serious level and, with an eye on future participation in the Olympic rugby sevens competition, Bremner hopes to fast-forward the development process by encouraging the military to play the game.

"We want to create special circumstances [to encourage involvement from Emiratis], and I don't know how, but uniformed organisations exist," Bremner said. "They are there every day. My opposite number in India got the game into the army there last year and they were absolutely ecstatic.

"We have to look at ways of growing the game, and then how can we make a fast track. We are close to getting the seeds planted.

"The next stage, which will be in 12 or 24 months time, giving us time to negotiate with various strategic partners, [is] to see what is the best route to take for the acceleration of the process."

While UAE rugby remains almost exclusively expatriate, the Sri Lankan national team is fully indigenous, with the only imported expertise coming from their coach. Ellis Meachen, a New Zealander who previously had been the assistant coach of Tonga, took over as national team coach in January.

The UAE have two New Zealanders, Bruce Birtwistle and Shane Thornton, as part of the coaching team, while Ghaith Jalajel, from Jordan, is the UAERA's Arabic-speaking development officer.

In Sri Lanka, development duties are mostly carried out by former players in the services, who have more time to devote to the game since the civil war ended in 2009, according to Rohan Gunaratne, the executive director of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union.

"In Sri Lanka, the army, navy, police and so on all have A Division rugby teams," he said. "We have a lot of ex-rugby players working in the services, and we are trying to use them as development officers.

"Now that there is no war, the people in the services are more free. Earlier they were very tight with their time."