A Dubai school is enlisting the help of its ICT and drama departments, in an attempt to help its team of first-time rugby players to be contenders at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Gems World Academy (GWA) secured a place in the U19 competition at the annual rugby showpiece for the first time this term.
That was despite the fact they had never formally played the game before, and did not yet have a team. Most of the players in their pioneering side are totally new to the sport.
And yet the fledgling players expect to be competitive when they play some of the country’s leading rugby institutions later this month, thanks to some innovative coaching methods.
This has included implementing drones to get footage providing a bird’s eye view of their training sessions.
“The drone is in the air, so it is really clear to see the depth of the players, the lines they are running, whether they are all together in defence and coming up cohesively,” Matthew Pewtner, the team’s coach, said.
“When we have brought the cameras in close, you can even see small things like passing technique, footwork, and things in the contact area like body position.
“In has been good to have everyone from school behind us, giving their input, and hopefully it will make a good difference come the tournament.”
The team are fortunate to have the expertise of Pewtner, a former Wales sevens international, to call on.
He joined the school at the start of this term, having become a teacher full-time last year when concussion led him to retire from playing rugby professionally aged 25.
“I knew it was a great school, one of the best in Dubai, and I am big on education and coaching anyway,” Pewtner said.
“To be offered the chance to join a school as good as this was something I jumped at.
“To be honest, at first I didn’t realise rugby wasn’t part of the curriculum. It didn’t put me off coming to the school by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought maybe it was something I could bring.”
Pewtner and fellow teacher Chris Burch, a former UAE and Dubai Hurricanes fly-half, hope to make their charges competitive, within the space of around 10 weeks from start to tournament.
“We have been working around the clock to make sure we can field the best possible team,” Pewtner said.
“From the start, we were aware it was going to be a massive challenge. The Dubai Sevens is one of the biggest tournaments in the world.
“We thought, ‘Let’s go with it,’ and if nothing else it will be a starting point for rugby within our school.
“Ninety per cent of our players had never even touched a rugby ball before, let alone played a competitive game. The improvement they have made has been immeasurable.
“As long as we can be competitive within our group, we will be really, really happy with that.”
That will be a feat in itself. GWA have Dubai English Speaking School, the defending champions who have had several players scouted by professional clubs in the UK, in their pool, as well as Jumeirah College (JC) and Abu Dhabi Harlequins Under 19.
They have reason for optimism, though. GWA played an extended friendly match against JC last week.
In the final quarter of it, against one of Dubai’s most established rugby schools, they scored five unanswered tries.
Jack Manson, one of the stand out GWA players, has converted from football to play rugby.
Not that he has given away the round ball game totally: he trains for the sevens before school, then football after it.
Having moved to Dubai from Scotland in 2011, he has been to the Sevens many times – and he cannot wait to go there as a player.
“I have always watched it and thought: I wish I could play. Now I just can’t wait,” Manson, 16, said.
“Coming into this team, I had never played before. I have always watched rugby, and like watching the Scottish national team play. But when the school started this I thought: I have to do it.
“Once there was a list of people signing their names to try to set up a rugby team, but it never came through. Finally, this year it happened.
“We have no expectations. We know we could struggle, but we are just there to see where we get, then hopefully in the future the school can build up its rugby team.”