x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

MacDonald playing for Scotland is a lesson for all schoolboys

Schoolboy-turned-national squad member can act as a role model for youngsters in a thriving sport, says the British School's director of rugby Lyn Jones.

Jonny MacDonald, above, has been called up to the Scotland sevens.
Jonny MacDonald, above, has been called up to the Scotland sevens.

A young rugby player who was born and schooled in the UAE will fulfil the dream of all aspiring sportsmen when he pulls on the jersey of a leading national team and runs out in front of 40,000 people in a high-stakes IRB competition this weekend.

Jonny MacDonald was this week named in the squad for Scotland — the country of his grandfather — for the next two legs of the HSBC World Sevens Series, in Hong Kong then Australia.

He was born in Abu Dhabi, attended the British School Al Khubairat, and first picked up a rugby ball while growing up in the capital.


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However, it is fair to say that the most talented player to date that has been produced in the Emirates thrived in spite of the prevailing junior system here, rather than because of it.

The promise he first showed after learning the basics of the game here was harnessed when he attended boarding school in England, from where he progressed to the academy programme at Saracens, the leading Premiership club.

He then shone when he was picked for the Arabian Gulf in IRB sevens competitions here, and subsequently has been drafted in to the Scotland side.

Junior rugby has developed at pace in the UAE in recent years. But is it possible for a talented young player to stay in this country for all of his education and emerge the other end at the requisite standard to play professional or senior international rugby?

The answer is unclear, but at least the aspirants have a role model to look to now.

"This boy [MacDonald] deserves it," Lyn Jones, the former Wales flanker who is now the director of rugby at the British School, said yesterday. "I saw him playing last year [at the Dubai Rugby Sevens] and he was the stand-out player in the Gulf team.

"He is a talented boy and the school is immensely proud of this young lad's achievement, and it is something people have been talking about all week."

The landscape of schools rugby is far different now to that which MacDonald would have experienced when he was growing up.

At the initiation of Jones, the former Ospreys coach, an Abu Dhabi schools competition has been running for two years.

The tournament takes in five schools, including the British School, Al Yasmina, Cambridge, Al Raha and the British International School.

This season culminated on Tuesday, when the British School won the Under 16 and Under 14 titles, and shared the Under 12 crown with Al Yasmina.

"It is another 250 boys playing rugby," Jones said. "The game of rugby is expanding at school level in Abu Dhabi at the moment, and it is well advanced in Dubai.

"The numbers are increasing, and with numbers you get more talent. Wasps and Harlequins have played here, the UAE will play its first home game against Kazakhstan in Abu Dhabi, and there are just so many positives in the game of rugby union. People want to play international rugby. Whether it be with Scotland or the UAE, they want to represent their country.

"As long as it stays on that course, it may well happen in the next five years. But this is such a transient place that people come and go very quickly."

Rugby benefits from impressive participation numbers at age-group levels in the UAE. When the HSBC Dubai Mini and Youth Festival took place this year it attracted sides from as far away as Azerbaijan, Kenya and Russia, and nearly 2,000 junior players took part.

The Dubai Exiles, one of the three co-organisers of that tournament, along with the Arabian Knights and Dubai Hurricanes, have 450 players across their mini (ages six to eight), midi (nine to 12) and youth (13 to 18) sections. The Hurricanes have more than 300.

Richard Harris, the former Harlequins chairman who is now the secretary of Gulf Rugby LLC, recalls that the club's colts section had 96 registered players six years ago. Now there are more than 700.

"Jonny obviously learnt his rugby in the UK, but his foundations were here," Harris said.

"There is plenty to be done all the way across the board, but the foundation is there to start producing world-class players.

"Our aim was to reach a level where if our colts left here and went and played in South Africa or the UK and played under 12 rugby, for example, they would fit in and not look like a bunch of muppets."

MacDonald is not the only player of talent who has passed through here. Stephan Venter was born and raised in South Africa, before moving to Dubai with his family three years ago.

Two seasons in the UAE's youth system did him no harm. Last year he swapped first-team rugby with the Dubai Hurricanes for a place at the highly regarded Western Province academy at Stellenbosch.

"Do I think we have the talent? Yes, without a doubt," said Mike Wolff, the chairman of the Exiles, whose youth section Venter played for before making his senior bow for the Hurricanes.

"Do we have the cast iron structures in place to facilitate it? Not yet.

"Currently it is enthusiastic parents who are getting involved, and that is a very hit and miss approach.

"It is no criticism of them, because without the dads, we would fail. That is part of the reason we appointed a director of rugby [Ravin Du Plessis].

"We wanted to create a system where we take a kid of six, and punch him out the other end at 18 as someone who was capable of going out to play at first-team level in a club environment. And hopefully, if they were exceptional, to open up doors for them overseas."

Wolff also believes an important balance needs to be struck between the rugby which is played in clubs and that of the schools.

"Both schools and clubs have a part to play," Wolff said. "Instead of a club versus country issue, here it is club versus schools for young players.

"The UAE Rugby Association needs to make sure they have the right guidelines in place so that schools and clubs work together, for the benefit of the players, and the institutions.

"For example, clubs play their matches on Friday mornings. Some schools want to play their matches on Thursday evenings.

"That may be OK at Under 10s level, but when the players are 14, 16 or 18, you are into player welfare issues."