Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 August 2020

Sophie Shams, the leading Emirati female rugby player, counting down the days to senior debut

Sophie Shams is getting set for her debut season in senior women’s rugby, even though she is not yet old enough to play.
Sophie Shams will make her senior club debut in November for Heartbeat Tigers when she turns 17. Antonie Robertson / The National
Sophie Shams will make her senior club debut in November for Heartbeat Tigers when she turns 17. Antonie Robertson / The National

DUBAI // The leading female Emirati player is getting set for her debut season in senior women’s rugby, even though she is not yet old enough to play.

Sophie Shams completed her GCSEs at Dubai College earlier this summer, and she is still just 16.

She turns 17, the minimum age required to play senior rugby, on November 12, and is counting down the days until she can turn out in the Women’s Cross Border League.

The teenager is renown for her tough tackling in the junior game, even since the days when she was still able to play against boys in mixed rugby.

As such, she has no qualms about the prospect of playing against powerful and experienced women players. In fact, she is relishing the prospect.

“There used to be some big boys that I used to tackle and it didn’t bother me then, so hopefully I will be fine,” Shams said.

“I have to admit, tackling is one of my favourite aspects of the game. Perhaps there are those opposing players who will underestimate me because I am young.”

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Shams has played rugby since she was four. She went on to captain her primary school team which was otherwise made up exclusively of boys, and back then would regularly go straight from ballet lessons to rugby training.

Regulations meant she had to forego playing against boys three-and-a-half years ago. World Rugby’s player welfare guidelines permit players to play in mixed gender teams “only up until the end of the season in which the player turns 12”.

She has spent much of the intervening time playing girls’ league rugby for Dubai Exiles, as well as improving her skills playing touch rugby.

As well as regularly touring the UAE playing the non-contact version of the game, she has travelled to countries such as Australia, Jersey and the Netherlands in the past two years as part of Middle East Touch representative sides.

According to John Larkins, the founder of Middle East Touch, Shams should fare well in senior rugby, despite her youth.

“Sophie will admit that her skills have improved 100 per cent from the time she first joined the group, specifically her ball handling and spatial awareness,” Larkins said.

“This has helped her confidence both on a touch pitch and also when she is playing contact rugby. It’s no different to watching the Aussie and Kiwi girls who have come from the same background.”

The daughter of an Emirati father and English mother, Shams has had to find a new club to play for at senior level.

She has joined Heartbeat Tigers because the Exiles, whom she has represented since she was four, have yet to form a senior women’s side.

Parting from the Exiles has been tough, given her family have a long association with the city’s oldest club. Mother Joanne played for them on her arrival in the UAE in 1992. She has now swapped the black and white of the Exiles for the red and white of Heartbeat Tigers, who finished third in the series last season.

The women’s cross-border league, which starts on October 7 at Dubai Sports City, is scheduled to be a seven-round series, culminating in finals day at The Sevens on February 17.

Shams will be available from the fourth round, in Al Ain, and she cannot wait.

“I am so excited that I can finally move up to ladies rugby,” she said.

“The last two years Dubai Exiles have been brilliant but we have dominated the age group and I think it is time to move on.

“We are very sad to leave. It is a shame that I have to leave in their 50th anniversary year but unfortunately they do not have a women’s team.

“I had to look elsewhere in Dubai for a team and I chose Heartbeat Tigers. I am very excited to play for them.”

pradley@thenational.ae​

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Updated: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM

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