x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Playing in Asian Five Nations should be rewarding experience for UAE

If the UAE are to truly compete with Asia's elite, the authorities need to dangle a few carrots in both the clubs and players' directions, writes Paul Radley.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - May 11, 2012 - A Kazakhstan defender tries to tackle the UAE's Peter Sampson during the first half of their Asian 5 Nations Top 5 Division rugby match at the Rugby Sevens stadium in Dubai City, Dubai, May 11, 2012. The UAE defeated Kazakhstan 46-31. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - May 11, 2012 - A Kazakhstan defender tries to tackle the UAE's Peter Sampson during the first half of their Asian 5 Nations Top 5 Division rugby match at the Rugby Sevens stadium in Dubai City, Dubai, May 11, 2012. The UAE defeated Kazakhstan 46-31. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)

Retaining their place in the top rank of the Asian Five Nations, as was confirmed this weekend, represented Mission Accomplished for the national rugby team.

That said, the gap between the UAE and the three best teams in the competition - Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea - has increased markedly in the past 12 months.

Some players have privately acknowledged that it is no fun being competitive for one game per season, then being badly beaten in the other three. That was before their valiant showing in South Korea this weekend, but the theory still works the same.

For all the enjoyment there is to be had in touring Seoul and Tokyo, if progress is not tangible the players will begin to question if it is all really worth it.

If "just surviving" is going to turn in to genuine competitiveness at this level, UAE rugby is going to need to implement change.

 

Fewer clubs needed

After Hong Kong thrashed the UAE for the third time in the space of 12 months during the Five Nations, the touring side revealed their secret.

"[The Hong Kong union] have implemented a robust domestic structure," Leigh Jones, their senior coach, said after the 85-10 win at The Sevens.

"From that you obviously churn out more international players. We have some good depth in Hong Kong now."

Club rugby in this country, by contrast, is in the doldrums. Too few players are supporting too many clubs, and the top domestic league is at breaking point.

Last season the Al Ain Amblers had to forfeit matches. Toa Dubai had to borrow players from another team to fulfil one fixture. And, most worryingly, the Dubai Exiles - once the great behemoth of UAE rugby - had to withdraw from the final weeks of competition.

With resources spread so thin, the best players are not being challenged often enough.

"What we see in club rugby, the guys can often get away with doing silly, average fundamental skills, but at this end of competition, they can't," Duncan Hall, the UAE performance manager, said during the Five Nations.

 

Financial incentives

UAE rugby exists on a shoestring budget so the funds need to be used wisely. A safe investment would be to reward the clubs financially for every national team player they provide.

During this Five Nations, the Abu Dhabi Harlequins were rightly proud to have the chance to say: "We have got 10 players in the national squad."

Fair enough, but surely they would have been even happier to say: "We have got 10 players in the national squad - and a few thousand dirhams in the bank because of it."

It would encourage the clubs to rear their own players, and it might also help arrest the availability problems which exist at the top of the game here.

Call it incentives or call it blackmail. A lot of good men of UAE rugby have well-founded ambivalence towards playing representative rugby at present.

However, they would be reticent about opting out of national team duty if they were costing their clubs money by doing so.

 

Hire fitness professionals

The game here is light years away from being able to offer the sort of remuneration that would make players consider giving away the careers that brought them here in the first place, for the sake of a few years playing rugby.

However, the national team cannot feasibly haul in sides such as Hong Kong and South Korea- let alone Japan-unless they have some players who are allowed to focus on the game first, and their day jobs second.

There must be a way of employing fitness professionals with a rugby background to play the game, then assist players at each of the clubs with conditioning in their remaining time.

The Arabian Gulf's World Cup Sevens team of 2009 was founded on players such as Corey Oliver and Marcus Smith who would have been perfectly suited to such a strategy.

"A lot of the league in Hong Kong is semi-pro," Hall said, in explaining that the rugby association is exploring ways to get more value from the domestic game.

"It might not be enough to live on, but people are prepared to take that chance for a few years to pursue their passion."

 

Protect the player pool

It does not matter whether you are wholly professional, semi-professional or entirely amateur, every side - save perhaps New Zealand - need their best players if they are to succeed.

Whether it is tacitly acknowledged or not, there are a raft of excellent UAE-eligible players who are not currently engaged in national duty.

Given the three-year residency criteria, the talent pool is already small enough without allowing such pedigree to go to waste as well.

It is unfathomable that Jamie Clarke, the former Abu Dhabi Harlequins captain, has been allowed to kick his heels in Doha, when he would happily commute to Dubai for training.

It is not as though he has any other options for international rugby, having represented the national team in the Cup of Nations at the end of last year.

The overseas-based player issue, especially when they are only a short skip across the water in Qatar, is an easy one to solve.

The larger malaise of the continued absence of UAE-based players of quality is more complex, but it needs addressing for the benefit of the game here.

Do you agree with Paul Radley's suggestions to improve UAE rugby?  Let us know:

pradley@thenational.ae

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