UAE rugby clubs push for introducing game to college students
DUBAI // The Rugby Association (UAERA) hopes to create "special circumstances" in which greater numbers of Emiratis can be exposed to the game.
To date, the majority of nationals who have played rugby to any serious level have happened on the sport by accident.
Cyrus Homayoun and Ali Mohammed, who became the first Emiratis to play international rugby when they ran on as replacements in an Asian Five Nations match earlier this year, are perfect examples.
Homayoun first learnt the game from his schoolmates at Dubai College. Similarly, Mohammed was intrigued by the oval ball game his friends were playing while he was studying to be an aircraft engineer in Swansea, Wales.
The Dubai Falcons, who became the first competitive Emirati club when they played at the 2005 Rugby Sevens, also chanced on the game.
One of their players was encourage to try rugby as a way to get fit by his personal trainer John Mamea-Wilson, a former professional player.
He loved it, encouraged his friends to join him, and it snowballed. The Falcons were attracting more than 40 Emirati players to training at the peak of the club's advance.
However, not all have retained their interest in the game. Mamea-Wilson said it is difficult to strike a balance between blooding novice Emirati players in senior club rugby and competing.
"There are not enough people here with a big enough heart or enough patience to run out with those guys week in, week out, knowing that they are going to be up against it," he said.
"A lot of these guys would not make a first team in the top tier of competition, so they need to be catered for elsewhere."
Mamea-Wilson set up his club, Toa Dubai, in 2009 with the stated aim of promoting the game to Arab nationals.
However, when Toa earned promotion to the highly competitive UAE Premiership at the first attempt, the Emirati players drifted away. They now form the core of Dubai Wasps, another new club.
The UAERA is still in its infancy, but it does not want for ideas. Much of its embryonic existence has been spent brainstorming ways to attract indigenous players to the sport.
Until now, many schools have offered taster rugby sessions, but with no follow up.
Mohammed Farooq, a physical education master at the Al Shafie Primary School, a public school of 250 children in Dubai, was given an introductory coaching clinic earlier this year.
When he then ran his pupils through their paces, they showed great enthusiasm for the new game.
"I tried once before to teach rugby, but the kids just re-enact what they see on the TV and it got very violent and aggressive," he said.
"They just want to jump to that level without taking the first steps first. We would like to get rugby tag belts so we can play rugby as part of PE."
One idea floated by the new association involves linking existing, expatriate-dominated clubs to Emirati primary schools, with the clubs offering coaching expertise.
By this plan, if a child shows promise for the game, he would be offered every chance to take it further.
Ian Bremner, the chief executive of the UAERA, is well placed to assess the feasibility of spreading the game through local schools. He was a teacher before moving into a career in professional rugby.
"Here we have a big adult game and big youth game - all at a good standard - but no local participation," Bremner said.
"There is a very small percentage of Emiratis playing, so the challenge is to keep going what we have got going, but in terms of growing the game, which is a big theme of ours, we want to get into Emirati schools, public and private, and grow the game there.
"Part of our plan and part of our thinking is what special circumstances we can create in the game that really will accelerate the way through."
The governing body has also tentatively explored the idea of getting uniformed services, such as the army and the police, to play the game.
It is unsure of its feasibility as yet, but playing rugby as a means of team building in the workplace is not a totally untried concept.
The UAE's newest rugby club, the Abu Dhabi Saracens, believe they have already happened on an answer to the Middle East game's oldest conundrum.
Brett Bowie, the club chairman, has been able to introduce Emirati college students to the game, via his day job as the corporate communications trainer for Emirates Steel.
"I'm well placed, working at the big steel plant at Musaffah," Bowie, a New Zealander, said. "We have a huge Emiratisation drive, and part of that is working with colleges to bring those boys in as technicians.
"I told my Emirati female boss that she could put me in a room with these guys and I would have some impact on them.
"But if you want them to be mentally and physically tough, understand time management, teamwork, fitness, discipline, then I suggested we get them involved in rugby and touch rugby.
"We are making some good inroads on that front, and are working with the UAERA to create some momentum."
Updated: June 16, 2011 04:00 AM