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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Dubai Rugby Sevens: Dubai Exiles out of the wilderness to lift Gulf Men's League title

Fitting to see Dubai's oldest club back on top at an event they invented in 1970, beating Jebel Ali Dragons in the final

Dubai Exiles's DuRandt Gerber, in black, is tackled during the Gulf Men's final against Jebel Ali Dragons at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Satish Kumar for The National
Dubai Exiles's DuRandt Gerber, in black, is tackled during the Gulf Men's final against Jebel Ali Dragons at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Satish Kumar for The National

In 1970, players from Dubai’s lone rugby club, the Exiles, hosted an invitational sevens tournament on their pitch of rolled sand, with bitumen used to mark the lines.

A team from an infantry regiment of the British Army, who were based in what was then the Trucial States, won the inaugural tournament. The event has grown out of all recognition since, not least the role of the Exiles in it.

The club’s name has long since been dropped from what was once the Dubai Exiles Rugby Sevens. In 2008, the club were no longer home owners, after their ground was bulldozed to make way for Meydan, but tenants of the new facility for rugby in the region.

And in 2011, they finally ceded the intellectual property of the event. The Exiles had become just another participant in the tournament they invented.

In nine years at the new venue on the Dubai to Al Ain Road, the Exiles have rarely had a sniff of success. Then, in early afternoon on National Day 2017, they returned to the podium with a bang.

It was their first Gulf Men’s League title win at the Sevens since 2006, and even they had not anticipated this.

“We were talking before the final, saying we were just happy to have made it that far,” DuRandt Gerber, the Exiles playmaker, said.

“We were there just to have a game and a duel. If we make it we make it, if we don’t we don’t. We were the underdogs coming into this.

“Everybody decided we were just coming here to have fun. We didn’t plan to win it, we just wanted to had fun, and the boys just stuck to it. Everyone gave their all every game.”

If being in the final was a shock, the subsequent 19-12 win over Jebel Ali Dragons was totally unforeseen.

Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins, the deposed champions, have held a duopoly on the Gulf Men’s League trophy since shortly after the Burj Khalifa was opened.

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Just being in a Pitch 1 final was a euphoric occasion for even the most seasoned Exiles player.

“It was amazing running out there,” said Gerber, who arrived in Dubai three summers ago fresh from a 10-year professional career in Europe.

“Before the semi-final I had goosebumps, but it was a good feeling. Then standing in the corridor waiting for the final, it was a bit overwhelming. It was awesome.

“It is awesome being in this country, playing in a game like this, in front of this crowd. It is like a dream come true, and an honour to have played in it.”

Perhaps the seminal moment of the game was when Gerber thwarted Matt Richards, a former Exiles wing who switched to Dragons this summer with the expressed intention of having a better shot at winning the Sevens.

Gerber is arguably the best distributor in Gulf rugby, and has an astute kicking game, too – but he is not especially noted for his defence in a side that has no shortage of players to do that job.

And yet the former Italy A team fly-half scragged the Dragons wing as he was heading to the corner to score, and deposited him into touch like an NFL defensive end.

“I’d heard the club has a bad recent history, and we are trying to build the ethos and character, and get the boys proud of the jersey,” Gerber said. “It was nice when we arrived and some of the newer boys said they felt proud wearing the jersey.”

The Exiles Under 19 Girls completed a banner day for the club, as they too regained their title, beating Arabian Knights in their final on Pitch 2.

Jacques Benade, the Exiles director of rugby, said the successes marked a new high point in the revival of the UAE’s oldest club.

“This is something that everyone wants to win,” Benade said. “I don’t care if boys say the sevens doesn’t mean anything. This is the competition everyone wants to win.

"Playing in front of thousands of people? Everyone wants to do that. It is magic. This is massive for the Exiles, it is a big thing for us.”