Sand gets in their eyes, but UAE rugby club RAK Goats finally have a place to call home
RAS AL KHAIMAH // Old habits will be hard to get rid of for teams playing away at RAK Goats this season.
The Community League side made first use of their new sand pitch at the weekend, when they lost a good-natured preseason friendly against Arabian Knights.
A once ubiquitous experience in the Middle East, sand rugby is now very much niche. As such, the lessons from Friday’s match at the Bin Majid Beach Resort were many.
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There is no need for the kickers to bring the own kicking tee with them, for starters. Just build a little sandcastle, plop the ball on top, and away they go.
For footwear, basically anything goes. Adidas Predators or Nike Mercurials will be about as effective as bare feet.
“You feel like Roadrunner the whole time: pedalling, but not getting anywhere,” Matthew Norman, an Arabian Knights player, said after his first go at playing on sand.
“It is a lot of hard work on your calves and your hamstrings,” said James Parker, the Goats player-coach who, as a long-term resident of UAE, is one of the few players with experience to draw on.
“That top layer of sand that you dig into, you have to churn your way through it.”
And then there are the collisions. “In terms of tackling, there is no difference, other than the fact you have to remember to shut your eyes when you hit the floor,” Norman said.
Thirty burly men belting into each other, and yet their biggest concern is likely to be getting sand in their eyes. Matches in Ras Al Khaimah are clearly going to be unique experiences for those involved.
The Goats were already in the habit of doing things a little differently to everyone else, even before they moved into their new environs this month.
During the post-match guard of honour, their players bleat like the animal which gives their club its name, rather than offering up the customary three cheers for their opposition.
Now they have another set of eccentricities to indulge, thanks to their new home.
The pitch is about 200 metres from the shoreline. As such, post-match ceremonies — as well as the basic act of washing — will be conducted in the sea, rather than a club house.
Mike Silvester, the front-row forward who is also the Goats chairman, estimates it is the first time the club has played home matches in its home city inasmuch as 20 years.
He has overseen the troubled pitch project from its start, over two years ago, to this point.
He says a little still needs to be done in terms of making the playing area firmer, but he was delighted at how its debut went.
“The surface held up well, to be honest,” Silvester said. “We were worried about the scrums, but they were fine.
“At rucks and mauls, the surface held up. We just need to do a little work on it for the next game. It is a lot easier than grass on the effect. For calves and hamstrings it has certainly taken its toll.”
Of course, it was always like this once around here. The carpet-like lawns of The Sevens, Dubai were only built for the Sevens World Cup in 2009, and the Dubai Sevens itself was played on sand until 1995.
“Playing over in Sharjah on their [the Wanderers’] old pitch, which was a little bit firmer than this, was great fun,” Parker said of the old days.
“A lot of people are a little bit iffy about playing on sand, but once you get stuck in, it is just a game of rugby at the end of the day.”
Grass pitches, and even occasionally Astroturf at Jebel Ali, have become the norm of late, but the Goats have gone back to the future out of necessity.
After enduring an uneasy and nomadic existence for the past two decades, they have finally found a place to call their own.
They hope it will help establish themselves, and the first impressions are positive. On this evidence, witnessing or playing in a sand rugby match is a fun day out for RAK residents and opposition players alike.
“It is massive for us,” Silvester said. “We want to start bringing the community of Ras Al Khaimah to our pitch, socialising with us, watching us play, supporting us, and giving some pride into Ras Al Khaimah. We welcome anybody.”
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Updated: September 11, 2016 04:00 AM