x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UAE rugby focus turns to Emiratis

Gulf Rugby LLC will continue to run the club game as restructured league plans are unveiled with a hope to lure more nationals.

Abdullah Bal Khada, left, of Al Ahli, plays for the only team in the UAE made up of Emiratis. The UAE RA hope to attract more nationals to the sport, which is dominated by expatriates.
Abdullah Bal Khada, left, of Al Ahli, plays for the only team in the UAE made up of Emiratis. The UAE RA hope to attract more nationals to the sport, which is dominated by expatriates.

DUBAI // UAE rugby administrators believe the impending revamp of the sport in the region will help breathe new life into the bid to attract Emiratis to the sport. Rugby has been entrenched on the expatriate sporting landscape for more than 40 years, yet relatively few native Arabs have taken to the game.

However, for the first time in the nation's rugby history, a governing council - the UAE Rugby Association - is being headed by nationals. The new governing body for the game in this country this week agreed a deal allowing Gulf Rugby LCC, the new name for the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union, to continue to run the club game here from this season onwards. They hope that by outsourcing the administration of the club game back to Gulf Rugby, they will be able to focus their own attention on a development programme among UAE nationals.

"Rugby will be continuing as it was, but while that is going on we have a big job behind the scenes, to spread the word to the local community," Mohammed Abdulrahman Falaknaz, the chairman of the UAE Rugby Association, said. "Al Ahli is the only local club with a rugby team, and we want to encourage Al Wasl, Al Nasr and the rest, to go the same way." It is hoped that the UAE will be ready to enter a sevens side into qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games.

"There is a long-term plan to get UAE nationals involved in the game, in addition to keeping the traditional expat markets engaged," Matt Oakley, the International Rugby Board's West Asia project manager, said. The expatriate dominated clubs of the UAE have also stated their intention to assist the two governing bodies in their aim. "We embrace the changes and we look forward to working with the UAE Rugby Association," Michael Wolff, the chairman of Dubai Exiles, said.

"The challenge is going to be how we develop the game among the Emirati community, and that is something we have plans for as a club." The Exiles have the biggest youth section in the UAE. They are set to welcome a new director of rugby to replace Wayne Marsters, before the start of the new season. A big part of his job will be to oversee all facets of coaching at the club, including an Emirati schools programme.

Rugby clubs in the UAE should also find the financial strain caused by cross-border travel start to ease. The new structure for competition in the region will mean that UAE sides, at least, will have to travel abroad as little as three times per season, rather than every other week as was often the case in the past which saw a record number of games forfeited. "There is rugby for everybody, but importantly given the economic climate we have gone through, there is less travel for the UAE clubs in particular," Oakley said. @Email:pradley@thenational.ae

What has changed? The Arabian Gulf Premiership has been split into two new separate leagues, one for UAE clubs plus Muscat, and another for the northern Gulf clubs - Bahrain, Doha, Kuwait and the Beirut Phoenicians. The winners of each of the leagues will meet in a play-off final at the end of the season to decide the top side in West Asia club rugby. The top six clubs are also likely to play in a Champions League-style cup competition during the season. Why has it happened? Initially as a result of the IRB, rugby's ruling body, deciding to disband the Arabian Gulf - which, as a collective group of nations, was an anomaly among its membership - and split it into its constituent countries. The changes are also designed to ease the financial burden on the clubs who compete. More teams were forced to forfeit away fixtures last season than ever before, as the recession hit teams hard and made foreign travel tough. The new format has yet to be finalised, but it is unlikely any UAE club will have to travel abroad any more than three times per season. Who will be running it? Gulf Rugby LLC, the new version of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union, have been instructed to run recreational club rugby here as they have been doing until now, with the UAE Rugby Association overseeing. The UAE RA will thus be able to concentrate on their twin aims of spreading the game at the grass-roots level, especially among Emirati schoolchildren, as well as preparing a new national team to play in next year's HSBC Asian Five Nations. * Paul Radley