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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Rugby in UAE: Teams compete for titles on the pitch as they chase dirhams off it

Country's top rugby clubs are striving to find a balance between running top-draw operations and reining in their expenses.

Clubs such as Abu Dhabi Harlequins, in red and green, have enjoyed plenty of success over the years, but they still have to work for financial stability. Silvia Razgova / The National
Clubs such as Abu Dhabi Harlequins, in red and green, have enjoyed plenty of success over the years, but they still have to work for financial stability. Silvia Razgova / The National

When Abu Dhabi Harlequins this week revealed a loss of half a million dirhams worth of sponsorship, it was a stark reality check for the game here.

They are the leading side in West Asia, won five trophies out of five at first-team level last season, and have a massive junior player base. If they are not attractive to sponsors, then what about everyone else?

Clubs in the UAE have always had to rely on canny deal-making, as well as the benevolence of some rugby-loving businesses to meet costs that can be eye-watering.

With an annual budget of Dh1.8 million, Dubai Hurricanes aim to have 60 per cent of their income to be earned through membership fees.

The remaining 40 per cent will be via sponsor and corporate agreements. The split is likely to be nearer 70-30 for the forthcoming season, though.

More on Rugby in UAE:

Why pitches are expensive to hire for clubs

What sponsors get out of being involved

“Like other clubs, we have lost sponsors,” said Simon Lewis, the Hurricanes chairman. “In past years, we have had some very generous sponsors who have been part of the club. Out of goodwill, they have helped us out.

“Emirates, since The Sevens [rugby facility on the Dubai to Al Ain Road] was inaugurated [in 2008], have taken the approach of supporting grassroots rugby.

“They selected our club as being one to support, and without a doubt, we would not be where we are today.”

In 2006, the Hurricanes had around 90 mini and youth players. They ended last season with a little more than 600. The youngest players have annual subscription costs of Dh1,100.

As part of their recruitment drive for the new campaign, senior players can pay an “early bird” rate of Dh1,600 up until the first match of the season in September. After that, it rises to Dh1,950.

Lewis says the mini and youth section is not there to prop up the senior teams, but the clubs with thriving junior programmes generally have a healthier financial buffer than those who do not.

Dubai Exiles, who neighbour the Hurricanes at The Sevens, have a budget of Dh2.8m for next season.

That includes pitch hire of around Dh600,000, plus payment for four members of staff - a commercial director, an administrator, plus the two coaches, Jacques Benade and Denis Hurley.

“Just to deliver your basic product here costs a lot of money,” said Mike Wolff, the Exiles chairman.

“We have just shy of 700 playing members, and have worked out that on average, each player’s total cost is something like Dh4,000. That is a lot of money over the course of a season.”

Sponsorships and barter agreements mean membership subscriptions are subsidised. Players pay between Dh1,800 to Dh2,250 per season.

“People can argue, do you really want some of your mini and youth players to be training twice a week, because that increases your pitch costs,” Wolff said.

“Or do we really need a small core of paid staff to help a large club like ours run and deliver what it does. But I firmly believe we want to offer that high quality experience.

“Our successes with our mini and youth programme and the men's section winning the double two seasons ago prove it's working.”

Jebel Ali Dragons are unique among the top Premiership clubs in not having a mini and youth division. It is a target for 2018, but Stuart Quinn, their new chairman, remains cautious.

“There are some great mini and youth options in the country so any offering we put together needs to be well thought out and supported,” Quinn said. “We aren’t there yet, we know that.”

Quinn says the Dragons are now more commercially minded than ever, but they have always been resourceful.

When Dubai rugby decamped from the now defunct Exiles ground in Al Awir at the end of 2008, all clubs initially made use of the purpose-built Sevens ground.

Dragons moved to Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence in the 2010/11 season, though. It was “vital” to the club’s development, according to Quinn.

They expect to have around 130 players for the new season, under the paid-for coaching of Henry Paul, the former England player.

They sustain this player base partly via a link up First Resort Global Recruitment, a company run by Paul Hart, one of their senior players.

“We have made it a clear policy that we don’t offer financial incentives, but do have an incredible network that we can call on to secure players work,” Quinn said.

“It’s our opinion that this is still an amateur league and is certainly not built to support the paying of players. It is far more sustainable for us to work on finding people good solid employment, the rugby comes after that.”