x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Majid Al Balooshi: 'I focused totally on training for rugby'

After switching his attention to his new No 1 sport, Majid Al Balooshi has graduated to the senior level, writes Paul Radley.

Majid Al Balooshi, centre, says he loved rugby from the first day he played.
Majid Al Balooshi, centre, says he loved rugby from the first day he played.

When it comes to spreading rugby to native Arabs, those tasked with developing the game in the UAE will take signs of progress wherever they can find them.

Like for instance when Majid Al Balooshi turned up to a practice session wearing a gumshield, they thought they might have found a prospect.

"I remember he was one of the first players who came to training at school with a mouthguard," said Wayne Marsters, the UAE rugby manager.

"He said he had seen players wearing them on YouTube. Then we were having a conversation about football, because he was football mad, and he said: No, I am a rugby player now. That is the moment we realise we have got them."

This weekend, Al Balooshi became the first graduate of the UAE Rugby Federation's schools development programme to play senior rugby, when he represented the Shaheen side in the West Asia Sevens.

Judging by his performance, his selection was not just a token gesture, either. The novice winger scored tries against a Lebanon side of far greater experience than him or any of his Emirati colleagues.

Not bad for a schoolboy who just turned 17 earlier this month, and who only came to the oval-ball game recently when it was introduced at a PE lesson at his school - Al Maarif in Dubai - via the Princess Haya Initiative.

To say he is happy to be involved is an understatement. "It was the best feeling I have had in my life when I got to wear the national team shirt," Al Balooshi said yesterday.

"When I am wearing this shirt, I never ever want to lose any game."

When Marsters says he thinks they have converted Al Balooshi from football now, he is not wrong.

The teenager is clearly hooked on his new sport, poring over YouTube to find clips of the game and watching Total Rugby on Fox Sports.

"The very first day I started playing I loved the game, I was really happy to play it," he said.

"I realised the game was aggressive and when I saw the players at the clubs I saw they were 100 per cent committed to the game.

"So I stopped all the other sports I was playing and focused totally on training for rugby, and I go running on the beach all the time.

"When I heard there was going to be a West Asia Sevens tournament, with teams from Lebanon and Saudi, I got myself ready as I wanted to show what I have got."

The non-arrival of Iran for this weekend's tournament - which prompted the Shaheen side to be assembled at late notice - meant twice as many Emirati players got the chance to play as would otherwise have done.

Not so long ago, it would have been a job to raise one side of Emiratis, let lone two. It is a sign that the word about rugby is finally starting to be heard within the Emirati community, according to Mohammed Shaker, the team manager of the Shaheen side.

"The good thing is the number of players we have now, we never thought there would be this many Emiratis involved in rugby," said Shaker, who is one of three rugby playing brothers.

"The attitude is changing. Now many people know what rugby is and they are talking about it more."

Until now, all senior Emirati rugby players have been adult players who have converted from other sports, such as Mohanned Shaker, the UAE captain this weekend who was a former handball player with Al Wasl club. Marsters has been grateful for the chance to see the first product of the federation's new schools development programme in action this weekend.

"[Al Balooshi] wouldn't have got an opportunity to play otherwise," Marsters said. "At his school they train on a plot of grass which is about 10 metres by 15 metres, with reeds growing up.

"He has always had a lot of go about him, he has picked the game up very quickly. You can see him working the game out in his mind while he is out there. He has a nose for the tryline.

"He scored two tries against Lebanon and one against Saudi, and this for a guy who was handed a rugby ball for the first time at school a few weeks ago."

According to Duncan Hall, the UAE performance manager, the West Asia competition has given the new Emirati players an idea of what they need to do to progress in the sport.

"We needed to play competitive games," said Hall, who was in charge of the senior UAE national team which finished second behind Lebanon.

"The aim of this is to realise what the players need for competition. They need to get fitter, they need to do certain aspects of the game better, but now they can see what the end goal is."

pradley@thenational.ae

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