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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Flock is growing for new kids on the UAE rugby block Dubai Sports City Eagles

Forty-four players – 32 male and 12 female – lined up this week, listening to instruction from Pat Benson, the team’s new coach

When Sean Carey and Josh Ives decided to branch out on their own and start a new rugby club earlier this summer, it will not have been long before they felt lonely.

At the first training session of the Dubai Sports City Eagles, there were seven players, other than Carey, the founder, and Ives, the rugby development manager.

Just enough to run a sevens team, then, but hardly anything like the numbers required to man a fully functioning club with aspirations of competing at Premiership level.

At that point, the duo of UAE international players might have been wondering quite what they had done, and been mulling the best way to ask their former clubs if they would kindly think about having them back.

Not so. A little under two months later, the Eagles took to the practice field for the first time on Monday evening.

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At the 7pm start, 44 players – 32 male and 12 female – were lined up, listening to instruction from Pat Benson, the team’s new coach.

The recently relaid turf on which they trod looked immaculate. As the sun set behind the apartment blocks of the neighbouring Canal Residence, and the floodlights took full effect, this felt like the place to be.

It is fair to say, the Eagles have landed on their feet at Sports City.

“Over the past few weeks it has grown and grown and grown,” Carey said. “The ladies have been a great addition. Hopefully it will continue to grow like this.”

The Eagles’ arrival has not been without its complications for UAE rugby. Some of the kit on show at the opening night of training was a clue to that.

Shirts of Dubai Wasps, the club who were forced to fold last week because of insurmountable running costs, were the best represented among an eclectic mix of colours that also included a number in Dubai Sharks shirts or shorts.

Conor Coakley, club captain of the Dubai Sports City Eagles, during a training session at Dubai Sports City. Antonie Robertson / The National
Conor Coakley, club captain of the Dubai Sports City Eagles, during a training session at Dubai Sports City. Antonie Robertson / The National

The Eagles have more recruits in mind, standouts from the Premiership who they hope might want to try their luck at a fresh, new venture.

The most notable arrival to date is Conor Coakley, the former Dubai Hurricanes second-row forward, who has been appointed as the club captain.

The 32-year-old lock did not play at all last season, as he recuperated from a shoulder injury. He is a close friend of Carey’s, and signed up after months of deliberations.

“I know Sean has been very excited about this for a while now, but he left it to me to make my own decision,” Coakley said.

“I’m very excited to join. I was with Hurricanes for the past few years, and it wasn’t an easy decision to leave, because they are a great club and I have a lot of friends there.

“But now I am looking forward to new beginnings at a brand new club, and I think I can make a big impact here.”

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The Eagles know they will be giving away much in the way of established infrastructure, membership numbers, and history to their rivals when they kick off life in the West Asia Premiership next month.

The Exiles, their opening day opponents, turned 50 last season. Jebel Ali Dragons are about to turn 25, and Dubai Hurricanes are nearly 20.

But Coakley says the opportunity to be part of something new is part of the attraction.

“We know we are going to face a big challenge, up against the best teams in the UAE and the region this season, but we are trying to build a real club here,” Coakley said.

“It is open to all; everyone is welcome. It is a young team. Being here from the beginning, all the players feel like they are part of something big, and they can see how it is going to develop over the next few years.

“The club is going to grow, and we are the ones dictating how that is going to happen. We are able to bring a fresh perspective into Gulf rugby.”

The management team say all aspiring players are welcome to come and try out. New recruits will have no obligation to pay an annual subscription until the eve of the season, by which time it is hoped they will know whether it is the club for them.

Members of the new Dubai Sports City Eagles rugby team during training at Dubai Sports City. Antonie Robertson / The National
Members of the new Dubai Sports City Eagles rugby team during training at Dubai Sports City. Antonie Robertson / The National

The club already benefits from passing traffic, given its proximity to the residences of new Dubai. Their field is inside a running track where athletics clubs and boot camps going about their own activities. On another part of the facility, the UAE Rugby referees were undergoing their own pre-season training.

“People can see what we are doing,” Carey said. “I just saw an Exiles guy doing the boot camp. I was talking to him and he said, ‘I might bring my boots next time, rather than doing boot camp’.

“He retired last year, but hopefully we can change his mind and get him to come down. We want club people like that.”