x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

UAE's rugby players are moving on up

The UAE Falcons development side who represented the country at the Sri Lanka Sevens for the first time last weekend surprised themselves by doing so well.

DUBAI // Back in 2005, a side containing a nucleus of Emirati players entered the Dubai Rugby Sevens for the first time under the banner of the Falcons.

It was seen as a landmark moment for the development of rugby in a country where the indigenous people were supposed to be solely motivated by football, to the exclusion of other sports.

For the first time since then, there will not be an Emirati-centric side playing at The Sevens this weekend.

However, their absence is less of a sign of arrested development as evolution in full flow: the Emirati players are now deemed worthy of places in other teams.

Cyrus Homayoum, 24, will be lining up alongside some of his former school colleagues today when he plays for the Dubai College Old Boys in the International Social tournament.

"Like most UAE nationals I was into football when I was young, but then my friends said I should come with them and give rugby a try. I got hooked," said Homayoum, who returned to the UAE this summer after studying at university in San Diego in the US.

As one of the leading Emirati players, he was part of the UAE Falcons development side who represented the country at the Sri Lanka Sevens for the first time last weekend.

The squad included six UAE nationals and six expatriate players, and they surprised themselves as they held their own.

They went down 24-7 against a Samoa Barbarians side which included a number of players who are on the fringes of the nation's full IRB side.

In their second pool match they went down 29-28 to Japan, Asia's No 1 ranked nation.

"It was an unbelievable experience, definitely one that every rugby player should experience at some point," Homayoum said.

"It was the first international tournament for the Emirati boys and everyone stepped up and developed so much during it. We learnt a lot just by watching teams like Samoa, let alone playing against them."

Saood Belshalat managed the first Falcons side at the 2005 Dubai Rugby Sevens. He is now a board member of the recently-formed UAE Rugby Association, and was the tour manager in Sri Lanka.

"I went there expecting us to be comfortably beaten," Belshalat said. "I thought if we played against Samoa we would lose by 70 points, and against Japan we would lose by 40 points.

"It was a shock for me. This was the first time we played together and we only had one week training together."

Shane Thornton, the Arabian Gulf coach who was also in charge of the UAE side, believes the Emirati players will be better off for their first experience

"They would have never thought in their life they would be able to play against international level sides, especially Samoa, given the level the Emiratis are at," he said. "They loved every minute."