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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Dubai-based Sophie Shams shines at Twickenham having 'defied the odds since she was 11'

Emirati schoolgirl, who was once the only female in an all-boy team at JESS and even captained them, scored two tries before being named player of the match in the final of the British Universities & Colleges Sport Rugby Championship

Sophie Shams in action for Durham University in the final of the British Universities & Colleges Sport Rugby Championship. Courtesy British Universities & Colleges Sport
Sophie Shams in action for Durham University in the final of the British Universities & Colleges Sport Rugby Championship. Courtesy British Universities & Colleges Sport

When Sophie Shams was in primary school, or counting down the minutes at her ballet and oboe lessons before she could get back to rugby training, she might have day-dreamed of playing in a cup final at Twickenham.

Maybe she might score a try with one of her first touches of the ball, running from her own half of the field, leaving a succession of defenders trailing in her wake.

It would have been pushing the limits of believability for her then to score another try later in the game, and be named player of the match.

All of that was a far-fetched ambition for an Emirati schoolgirl growing up in Dubai. But the dream came true on Wednesday when the 19-year-old geophysics student scored two tries at the most famous stadium in rugby.

Shams was playing for Durham University in the final of the British Universities & Colleges Sport Rugby Championship.

Although her side were eventually toppled 30-26 by Exeter University, the former JESS Jumeirah and Dubai College schoolgirl won the match award for her two tries.

The first, scored in the 16th minute to level the scores at 7-7, was an extraordinary solo effort that started from her own 10-metre line, with all 29 other players in front of her.

“With such tough opposition, I didn’t think that the try was on until I grounded that ball over the white line,” Shams said.

“At first I didn’t really know where I was going and this gap just parted for me and I knew I had to get there.

“Once I got through, the thing that scared me the most was the second line of defence, and I tried looking for my winger.

“One of my pre-game work-ons was trying to keep the full-back honest with a step or a grubber.

“Originally, I wanted to step towards the posts but my legs just took me the other way and I went with it.

“I could feel the others chasing me and I had to get over the line. Once I put the ball down, I couldn’t believe it. I had just scored at Twickenham.”

Shams, who played for Dubai Exiles in her formative years under the coaching of Andy Williams, and later honed her game at the Apollo Perelini Skills Academy, was beset by nerves in the lead up to the game.

“As soon as I got into our changing room I just started crying,” said Shams, who once captained a Middle East representative touch side at the World Cup of rugby’s non-contact version.

“I don’t know why, but I just sat on my part of the bench, in front of my shirt, taking in how surreal and bizarre the whole situation was.

“I think that crying got rid of most of my doubts and it sort of cleared me to play my best game.

“I am also a nervous vomiter, and waited until everyone left to go outside before I used the bathroom. At least it wasn’t sick on my coach’s trainers, which has happened before.”

Asa Firth, who first picked Shams aged 11 to captain a primary school rugby team that was otherwise exclusively peopled by boys, is proud to see her development.

“Was I surprised when I saw her doing what every young rugby player at JESS dreams of doing – scoring at Twickenham in a final? No,” Firth, the school’s head teacher, said.

Sophie Shams, who played for Dubai Exiles in her formative years, was beset by nerves in the lead up to the game. Courtesy British Universities & Colleges Sport
Sophie Shams, who played for Dubai Exiles in her formative years, was beset by nerves in the lead up to the game. Courtesy British Universities & Colleges Sport

“She has defied the odds since she was a kid. We had never had Emiratis through the school who played rugby. She was the only female in an all-boy team. She captained the team.

“She has been defying the odds since she was 11, so I wasn’t surprised. Watching her score that try, it was really a moment to feel proud of.

“Power, pace, the ball in two hands, acceleration through the gap, a step, and then a recognisable ‘Shams-fend’ to get her over the line. An absolute class act. She has a lot to be proud of.”

Shams says she is focused on her studies, but does have aspirations to progress in rugby – which is an ambition she has held since those days at primary school.

“When I was at oboe, I wanted to be a classical oboist,” she said.

“When I played rugby, I wanted to go professional. I enjoyed what I was doing so much at the time, I thought it was forever.

“However, I knew deep down I would never be a professional ballerina! I could always hope, but I often had too many bruises.

“It is everyone’s dream to play at Twickenham. I have been inside the hall of fame on a Twickenham’s stadium tour, but never thought I would ever play there, let alone score twice in one game.”

Updated: April 11, 2019 09:16 PM

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