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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

UAE rugby enters new season amid a climate of transition and uncertainty

With a new entity in charge, as well as decreasing numbers, withdrawn clubs and struggles for sponsorship, the new season is being approached with a feeling of circumspection

Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins both start the new season but some of the UAE's smaller clubs have not been so fortunate. Satish Kumar / The National
Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins both start the new season but some of the UAE's smaller clubs have not been so fortunate. Satish Kumar / The National

The new rugby season starts on Friday. Usually at this point of the campaign, there is optimism unfettered. Players approach the on-field challenges ahead with glee, and clubs pick out spaces in the trophy cabinet for the gongs that are bound to follow.

Not so much, this time around. At best, the general feeling is one of circumspection. At worst, trepidation.

There have been significant changes this summer. The UAE Rugby Federation have devolved the running of the league to a new entity, Gulf Rugby Management, which is essentially led by the experienced rugby administrators at The Sevens.

It leaves the federation free to focus on increasing Emirati participation, as well as the national representative sides.

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As with anything, the transition has not been entirely seamless. Teething issues remain, related to player insurance as well as running costs.

But the move has been broadly welcomed on all sides. The long-term benefits, it is generally felt, outweigh the short-term problems.

Beyond that, however, the strain of straitened times continues to show. Where Dubai Wasps were lost to competitive rugby last year, Sharjah Wanderers have now followed.

Abu Dhabi Saracens, who were the top side in West Asia not so long ago, asked to drop out of the top flight. Doha remain excluded from the region’s top competition for a second season.

For years, sponsorship revenue had been increasingly difficult to come by for clubs. When the number of players signing up to join clubs then started to drop off, as it did almost across the board this summer, many were pushed nearer to breaking point.

The total number of players covered by the UAE-wide player insurance policy – from Under 9s to adults – appears to have shrunk by around a third, from approximately 3,500 to 2,500 in the past 12 months.

“That means smaller clubs are either dropping down a league or taking a full sabbatical from competitive league rugby this season because they don’t have the numbers or depth in key positions to ensure sustainability,” Mike Wolff, the chairman of Dubai Exiles, said.

“The lower player numbers obviously affects subs revenue, too. That is hurting all clubs including the largest ones, but it is the smaller clubs who are the most vulnerable due to the new entry costs of GRM-run rugby.”

Sharjah’s decision to pull out of competitive rugby, having reached the Conference final last season and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2017, is alarming. Hopefully, it is only temporary.

“Player numbers seem to be down quite significantly across the UAE, according to emails I’ve read,” Shane Breen, the Sharjah chairman, said.

“For us, it has had a bigger impact than some of the bigger clubs. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but to commit to a full season knowing our numbers was just something we couldn’t do. It wasn’t an option to continue, unfortunately.

“The main club has always been there to support rugby. We will try and regroup and rebuild ahead of next season. Hopefully we can build and get a stronger start to next season.”

Andy Cole, the Abu Dhabi Harlequins chairman, has been involved in the regional game as a player, then administrator, for the past 27 years.

“It is like business: when things get tough, you trim the fat, and you come out of it leaner and stronger – if you can survive the period,” Cole said.

“I think the better organised clubs will come out of this stronger. The smaller, less-organised entities might go out of business, and those that want to could join the bigger clubs. If that happens, that is probably not a bad thing.

“Everyone is battling to try and find revenue from somewhere. Who knows what we would do if we didn’t have volunteers.”

Jebel Ali Dragons, who won the West Asia Premiership last season, buck the trend. They report an increase in player numbers, have retained healthy sponsorship, and continue to reap the benefits of free pitch hire at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence.

To top it all off, there is the small matter of them appointing the most high-profile figure ever to be involved in the game here, former Wales great Mike Phillips, as coach.

“We’ve massively increased our numbers, which is fantastic,” Stuart Quinn, the Dragons chairman, said.

“Location is key. If you look at the [Dubai Sports City] Eagles, they are going from strength to strength. And we can’t thank Jebel Ali enough, in terms of the massive chunk they take off our bottom line in giving us free accommodation. We are so lucky.”