x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The changing landscape

A new sponsor and administration gives the United Arab Emitates rugby union team hope.

The UAE are unable to call upon Jonny MacDonald, the Abu Dhabi-born scrum-half who was a mainstay of the now defunct Arabian Gulf’s sevens and 15s teams, after he chose to represent Scotland.
The UAE are unable to call upon Jonny MacDonald, the Abu Dhabi-born scrum-half who was a mainstay of the now defunct Arabian Gulf’s sevens and 15s teams, after he chose to represent Scotland.

A new era for rugby in the region begins this weekend when the UAE becomes the first Gulf nation to field its own side in a full international.

With many familiar faces from the Arabian Gulf side still around, it may feel as though little has changed, but there are some significant differences to the landscape now. Here are just a few ...

The name

There might be something in the idea of rebranding, after all. In the final throes of life as the Arabian Gulf, the governing body had such trouble selling their product to sponsors they eventually resorted to auctioning shirt-front naming rights on eBay.

The Gulf was both anomalous within the sport itself, and was restrictive in terms of appeal here, too.

For a start, the name held limited appeal to Arab nationals. Surely an Emirati, for example, will now have more interest in representing a side known as the UAE, rather than the relatively abstract entity of the Gulf.

On a similar theme, sponsors are likely to be far more willing to align themselves with an entity that has a more concrete identity than before.

The theory has already been borne out. Emirates, the Dubai-based airline which has a major presence in international rugby beyond these borders, had a mixed relationship with Gulf rugby in recent times.

However, they have already agreed to assist the UAE organisation, subsidising costs of pitch hire at its sevens facility for Dubai's rugby clubs from next season.

The players

As is their wont, the management of the UAE side have been putting a brave face on the problem of having their player pool cut.

At least everyone is in the same place, so training is more easily accessible for a greater number of players, and more and more are becoming qualified to play all the time, they say. However, the fact that they have been deprived of some outstanding players since they turned out as the Arabian Gulf last year is indisputable. Reality bit first when Jonny MacDonald, the Abu Dhabi-born scrum-half who was the outstanding player in both sevens and 15s rugby for the Gulf, recently confirmed his ineligibility for the UAE when he was called up for Scotland sevens squad.

With a player pool drawn exclusively from the expatriate community, the average age of the representative side is usually high, given that a player has to be here for at least three years to qualify in the first place.

As such, the loss of a youngster such as MacDonald, who could conceivably have been a fixture of the side for the next decade, will be felt even more acutely.

And he is not the only one. The Bahraini product, James Love, is also now unavailable, as is the Omani national Taif al Delamie.

Elsewhere, the rich talents of Rory Binder and Daniel Bell, from Bahrain, now look set to be lost to serious international rugby for good.

The rankings

The UAE adopted the Gulf's position in the top tier of Asian competition, but they have not automatically assumed their place in the International Rugby Board standings.

When the Gulf was officially dissolved at the end of 2010, their place in the mid-40s of the world rankings vanished.

It will be some time yet before the UAE appears on the ladder. The new association have to serve one more year as members of the Asian Rugby Football Union before they can apply for associate membership of the IRB.

The administrators

After 40 years of the game exclusively belonging to expatriates, the senior decision-maker in rugby now is an Emirati.

Ian Bremner, a Belfast-born former front-row forward, is the UAE Rugby Association's chief executive.

In that role, he is answerable to the chairman, Mohammed Abdulrahman Falaknaz, who was appointed to run the organisation following a government decree.

The Falaknaz name should have significant pull within the UAE sporting community.

His father, Abdulrahman Falaknaz, is the chairman of the Dubai Cricket Council, a vice-chairman of UAE Tennis and one of the founding partners of Dubai Sports City.

The Emirates

Rugby in the UAE has always been Dubai-centric. The city supports the biggest player base, with seven clubs operating in the emirate, as opposed to one-club centres, such as Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Al Ain.

However, the new powers that be are intent on broadening rugby's scope across the whole country. Funds permitting, plans are in place to employ development officers as far afield as Al Ain and the northern Emirates.

To support the message that rugby is for everyone and not just Dubai, the UAE's first home match will be played in Abu Dhabi at Zayed Sports City, against Kazakhstan, next week.