x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Taking part will not be enough for the UAE and other minnows

Playing conditions need to change for Asian rugby's flagship event to become competitive. Paul Radley explains.

Japan's Takashi Kikutani, centre, runs with the ball past UAE players during their Asian Five Nations (A5N) rugby match last week. The lop-sided 93-3 loss for the UAE is a reminder the Emirtais need some assistance before they go from amateur to professional and find success at the international level. Karim Shahib / AFP
Japan's Takashi Kikutani, centre, runs with the ball past UAE players during their Asian Five Nations (A5N) rugby match last week. The lop-sided 93-3 loss for the UAE is a reminder the Emirtais need some assistance before they go from amateur to professional and find success at the international level. Karim Shahib / AFP

It felt odd, and a little bit patronising, to defend the UAE's players and say how well they had done after losing 93-3 to Japan this past Friday.

Fifteen tries conceded, none scored.

Hardly the stuff international sporting dreams are made of.

It was like saying to the side from the local state school, who play in plimsolls and plain white T-shirts, after they have been thumped by the selective private school with the sponsored kit: “There, there, it’s the taking part that counts.”

At least the schools would drop that fixture the following year.

But there are mitigating factors which meant the UAE's players rather than necessarily UAE rugby as an entity deserved fulsome praise for their efforts. At one point, their overworked fullback, Steve Smith, noticed one of his former teammates in the crowd watching behind the goalposts, and motioned to him that he should be down there, helping out.

The former-player laid back on the grassy bank, stretched his legs and said, I'm fine here, thanks.

Been there, done that, got the caps, now I'm done with the aggravation.

Because that is what playing as an amateur against professionals can be.

The players have the glory of being able to call themselves international sportsmen, but there are struggles to go with it.

For example, one UAE player has been docked a day's wages for the time he missed from his job as a schoolteacher to fly to Hong Kong for a Test match.

That is a significant hindrance, rather than an inducement, to play international sport.

What can be done about it?

Well, if they really want their flagship tournament to be a genuine competition, the Asian Rugby Football Union might need to think about some sort of intervention.

Having a five-team competition where the top team posts 100 points against the lower-ranked ones as a matter of course greatly undermines the overall project.

The UAE's players need assistance if they are ever going to genuinely compete, and the prevailing employment conditions in this country do not help that aim.

No matter what happens in the relegation-decider at Manila on Saturday, when a win against Philippines would mean the UAE retain their place at this level of the game, something needs to happen.

Because the "taking part" may not count for a great deal for too much longer.

pradley@thenational.ae

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