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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

'We didn’t come to lose': Damascus Zenobians participation at Dubai Rugby Sevens a triumph in itself

Syrian team given guard of honour following defeat to Riyadh Falcons after battling adversity just to make it to The Sevens

Nour Mardini, right, of Damascus Zenobians is tackled during the game against Riyadh Falcons at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Nour Mardini, right, of Damascus Zenobians is tackled during the game against Riyadh Falcons at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Given the tight schedule the Dubai Rugby Sevens keeps to, the post-match tunnel, which is an unconditionally-observed ritual in the 15-a-side game, is rarely spotted.

When Riyadh Falcons opted to form an orderly guard of honour at the end of their 5.20pm fixture on Pitch 8 to toast their opponents on Day 1 at The Sevens, it spoke of a variety of things.

Primarily, a match well played. Their opponents had been vanquished 22-5, but the Gulf Men’s Open pool match had been fiercely fought. The fact the opposition are even here, however, is a triumph in itself, given the obvious challenges facing them to even play rugby.

The Damascus Zenobians have just nine players for this tournament, which is three short of the permitted quota of 12 per squad. Three of those are friends based in Dubai, who were called in at the last minute as only six Zenobians regulars were able to travel from Syria for this weekend.

The team missed out on playing here entirely 12 months ago, due to administrative issues. Their flight arrived in Dubai at 11pm on Wednesday night, so their sluggish start was perhaps understandable.

“It is the first time we have all played together, and we are glad we are here, but we didn’t come to lose,” Yassin Akid, one of the six to have travelled from Damascus, said.

“This first game was tough for us. We weren’t prepared mentally, and we were very tired. We found some difficulties getting a team together, but we hope we can make it to the final.”

Ammar Chhade of the Damascus Zenobians breaks through during the game against Riyadh Falcons. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ammar Chhade of the Damascus Zenobians breaks through during the game against Riyadh Falcons. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The Zenobians, named after a Syrian queen who ruled during the third century, started in 2004 with a mixture of expatriate and Syrian players. Numbers peaked in 2008, and the team even won the plate competition in Dubai in 2011.

The club has persisted despite war ravaging the country in the time since, but all the expatriates have departed, and funding and facilities have been scarce.

Akid, who dovetailed training for Dubai with studying for the finals of his architecture degree, is optimistic about the future, though, and wants rugby to start to rival football for following in his homeland.

“It is pretty much back to normal, things are getting better,” he said of life in Damascus. “We try to focus on our sports, our work, and – those of us who are students – our studies.

“Rugby is still in an early phase in Syria, and football is obviously the No 1 sport, but we are working to develop the game in the future.

“Most of the guys in Syria think it is a very tough game, and they prefer football, but we try to give them the right idea about rugby.

“My friend in college introduced me to rugby, and I fell in love with it. I love the brotherhood. You fight on the field, you feel like you want to kill the guy opposite you, then after the game you game you shake hands and go and party together.”

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Calvin King, a flight attendant for Emirates airline who is helping out the Zenobians for the weekend, scored the try against Riyadh. He was grateful for the call up to play. “This is the nicest bunch of guys I’ve played with,” King said.

Noor Mardini, another of the Damascus-based contingent, left the field limping, then after the final whistle was nursing a painful looking rib-injury.

Through it all, though, he could not stop smiling, so delighted is he to be back at The Sevens.

“This is an amazing tournament, and every year we hope to come here to participate in this great tournament,” Mardini said.

“We feel so happy to play here. We have to thank the organisers for helping us, and letting foreigners play with us Syrians, because we have been short of players.”

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