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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

UAE rugby season takeaways: Financial issues have been a running theme of 2017/18

But even as national team and local clubs struggle in challenging times, social media provides ray of hope to game in Emirates

Dubai Exiles, in black, were just too good for Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the UAE Premiership final. Satish Kumar for the National
Dubai Exiles, in black, were just too good for Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the UAE Premiership final. Satish Kumar for the National

After seven years of steady growth for the game in this country, progress has been checked after a challenging season for UAE rugby.

Usually, when the final ball is kicked in the domestic campaign, a lucky few have competitive Test match rugby to look forward to. This time around, UAE’s elite players have to make do with a home friendly against Gibraltar instead.

For the first time since the advent of the new UAE Rugby Federation in 2011, the representative side will not be playing in Asia Rugby competition.

It feels like a travesty. Coach Apollo Perelini has never had such a high-quality crop of players as those that are currently available for selection.

Some had been planning to sign off distinguished playing careers with one last hurrah on national duty. Others were craving international recognition for the first time.

“Hopefully I have a few years left and can do it next year," said Craig Nutt, the Abu Dhabi Harlequins prop who was aspiring to make a Test debut for UAE this summer.

"I was really looking forward to trying to make the squad. We will just wait and see how it all pans out next year.”

Newly-eligible players like Nutt, Saki Naisau, the gifted Jebel Ali Dragons centre, and Gio Fourie, the prolific Dubai Exiles hooker, would be fine additions to the UAE team.

Gio Fourie, centre, in action for his former side Abu Dhabi Saracens, is eligible to play for the UAE. Victor Besa for The National
Gio Fourie, centre, in action for his former side Abu Dhabi Saracens, is eligible to play for the UAE. Victor Besa for The National

“It is frustrating it is not happening this year, but it is something we have to deal with,” Fourie said.

An official reason for the withdrawal has not been provided, leaving the rugby community to speculate and come up with its own answers.

Many believe it to be part of the fall-out from Qais Al Dhalai, the UAE Rugby Federation (UAERF) secretary general, missing out on the presidency of Asia Rugby last November.

The man who has been the major driving force for change in the game here since the new federation took over from the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union in 2011 drew that vote – only for the previous incumbent to use his casting vote to plump instead for Aga Hussain, Al Dhalai’s opponent from India.

Al Dhalai is understood to have been highly frustrated at missing out. He had grand plans for advancing the game in the continent.

But there is more to the decision to remove the national team from competition than personal pique.

It is a reflection of the straitened financial climate that has gripped the game in this part of the world ever tighter.

Since Asia Rugby lost its top competition’s generous title sponsor, HSBC, in 2015, playing competitively has carried with it greater costs for the teams involved. A fallow year will, to an extent, ease the financial burden.

Subsidies to cover travel to tournaments – the UAE would have been due to play in Manila in June – are minimal, far less than the costs incurred. The UAERF feels that money could be better spent elsewhere, at least for this year.

At which level in the division structure they re-enter – if and when that happens – remains to be seen. But UAE rugby’s full membership of World Rugby should not be affected, so long as they do return to the fold next year.

Financial issues have been a running theme of the 2017/18 season. When Dubai Wasps went to the wall last summer, citing unsustainable running costs, Al Dhalai pointed out that all rugby institutions here are competing in the same market place – even the federation.

Abu Dhabi Saracens coach Winston Cowie resigned as the club struggled this season. Antonie Robertson / The National
Abu Dhabi Saracens coach Winston Cowie resigned as the club struggled this season. Antonie Robertson / The National

The challenges for the game in the region have been many, starting last summer, when Doha were left off the fixture list because of issues beyond rugby. It meant the West Asia Premiership would be without one of regional rugby’s behemoths. Over in the UAE, some of the biggest clubs were crippled by major losses of sponsorship revenue.

Abu Dhabi Saracens were left homeless for an extended time because of a change of management at Al Ghazal Golf Club. They lost their coach soon after, and many of their leading players had already departed.

Even though their cross-city rivals Harlequins profited from the Saracens exodus, they slipped from their perch as the undisputed No 1 side in the region – but showed great resolve in delivery two more trophies out of the five on offer.

Of all the troubles that hit them, perhaps the most telling to results was the premature retirement of captain Ben Bolger, who was the leading force in them winning all five major titles 12 months ago, because of concussion.

Up the E11 in Dubai, Paul Hart was able to move into his own retirement at the end of the season, safe in the knowledge he was leaving his beloved Dragons back on top of the pile.

It was the least he deserved. Hart has arguably been the most influential figure in the club game over the course of this decade. He was captain when Dragons first shed the tag of “perennial bridesmaids” and adopted the one of “serial winners” instead.

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The UAE rugby day had been broadcast on live television in 2017. Victor Besa for The National
The UAE rugby day had been broadcast on live television in 2017. Victor Besa for The National

While Dragons returned to No 1 in West Asia, Dubai Exiles reclaimed the UAE Premiership. UAE Finals Day has become a magnificent climax to the campaign.

It was not shown on television this time round, as the first grand finals day had been 12 months ago. There was no giant screen, relaying live footage and action replays.

But it was aired on Facebook Live, meaning its reach was likely greater, and more targeted than the 2017 broadcast on Dubai Sports might have been.

Remarkably, there were even rival broadcasters for the Premiership final between Exiles and Harlequins. The federation’s cameras took precedence, on the top tier of the scaffolding that had been erected behind the athletics track, in line with halfway on the rugby field at Dubai Sports City.

But Marc Why, the self-taught, in-house Exiles broadcast maestro, still found space to set up his own kit one rung below. His feed for the final was viewed 1,700 times. The UAE’s page had 1,800, too, which all adds up to a healthy audience for domestic rugby.

This has been a transformative season for the way games are consumed. Why was at the vanguard, single-handedly producing regular broadcasts of his team’s matches on the Exiles’ Facebook page.

One of his 20-second highlights clips, made for social media, of a bulldozing run by Exiles forward Kris Hughes, was viewed 70,000 times online. Amazing numbers.

Now, to work out a way to turn viewership like that into dirhams, for the good of the game.