x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Try as it might, rain cannot ruin the Dubai Rugby Sevens party

For the uninitiated, it can appear like mindless violence, but Ahmed Rizvi has started to see the beauty in the game for gentlemen.

Fans at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Jake Badger for The National
Fans at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Jake Badger for The National

Try? To most of us rugby-illiterates, yours truly being among the foremost on that list, the word simply denotes an effort, earnest or lame, at something. Usually, it is the latter and our mum, teachers, spouses or bosses would vouch for it.

But to understand the true essence of that word, you have to watch rugby, a "beastly game played by gentlemen" in the words of a former rugby player Henry Blaha. On first impressions, the hulking, 250-pound men don't seem very gentlemanly.

For an Indian like myself, gentlemen are Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. Gentlemanly is cricket, where you applaud something as uninteresting as a leave (which, for the uninitiated, simply means the batsman allowing the ball to go through to the wicket-keeper without making an effort to do anything).

Rugby seems a different ball game and I mean that literally - the ball is a funny shape and that's not just my opinion. To quote Peter Cook, the English comedian and satirist: "Rugby is a game for the mentally deficient … That is why it was invented by the British. Who else but an Englishman could invent an oval ball?"

As for the "gentlemen" part, put our "Little Masters" Gavaskar or Tendulkar alongside these hulks and you will know what I mean. They look menacing.

And that's just the start. Gentlemen don't indulge in a scary war dance before matches; in cricket, we do a huddle. MS Dhoni may not have withdrawn his appeal over a catch that wasn't (Jonny Bairstow's dismissal) in the Mumbai Test against England last week, but he would never pin up a message like the one put up by the English rugby captain Will Carling on the changing room wall before the 1995 World Cup against New Zealand.

"We're going to tear those boys apart," that message said. And that's just what they seem to be doing on the pitch. They ruck and maul, and clobber each other, revelling "in a state of Armageddon", as someone once said. Bruises and broken bones are normal and over the years, fans have seen players punch, kick, butt, bite or stamp on their opponents.

If you can overcome all these brutish obstacles and roll with that funny-shaped ball across the line at the other end, thousands will stand on their feet and roar for you, waving their fist in Gangnam style. It is THE moment in the sport and it is called a try.

Prudes may wince at the sadism of it all, but brutishness is what makes the sport so wide-reaching in appeal. It was the reason why the late Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor preferred rugby to football. "I enjoy the violence in rugby, except when they start biting each other's ears off," she said.

Thousands of fans in the UAE seem to share that opinion and proof of that is the annual Rugby Sevens. It is the best-attended sporting event in the country. Last year, more than 42,000 fans turned up at The Sevens on each of the two days. And yesterday, the rains failed to keep them away. The stands were packed from early morning.

"It's always good fun, the Rugby Sevens," said Keith Hill, an English expatriate who had come along with his two sons. He said his elder son has seen the past four Rugby Sevens "and every time he comes here, England win. He is the England mascot".

All three of them were wearing orange jerseys. Nothing very flamboyant, but many of the fans seemed headed for a fancy dress. Of course, they were not at the wrong address. The Sevens was one giant party, open for every age.

They came wearing Roman capes and cloaks. Some were dressed as medieval knights and smurfs, and there were a few superhero costumes as well. A few had chosen their own, outlandish creations, multi-hued dresses which beggared description and, of course, there were the Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley impersonators.

"You have got to come over and enjoy yourself," said Tim Stoddart, an English expatriate from Sunderland, who was creating quite an impression in his Presley get-up.

Stoddart's friend Jim Gordon was also dressed up as Presley and the duo, together with their better halves, posed happily for souvenir photographs.

"We live here, both of us … Elvis and Elvis," Gordon said. "It's good sport and it's good entertainment for the whole of family - the wives and the children as well. Superb, well-organised and a brilliant day."

By evening, I had the same opinion. Aside from gaining a better appreciation of the word "try", I cannot claim to be any wiser about the intricacies of the game, but the atmosphere in the stands was worth the early morning drive in the rain.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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