x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Wasps to develop Emirati players to be in national team

The first generation of Emirati international rugby players may seem camera shy, but they are warming to the job.

DUBAI // The front row of a forward pack has never been a place for prima donnas or, for that matter, cover stars.

Despite his inexperience in the sport, Mohanned Shaker, the UAE international prop forward, is already well aware that the role requires you to keep your head down and your chin up.

When asked to ponder the idea of him becoming one of the first rugby celebrities within the Emirati community, he is suddenly coy.

"Hmm, you know, my English is not so good," he said, quickly glancing around his fellow Dubai Wasps compatriots for someone else to take up the slack.

The first generation of Emirati international rugby players may seem camera shy, but they are warming to the job.

They know just how important role models can be. On Saturday morning they gave some of their own idols - the three UAE footballing brothers Abdulraheem, Abdulsalam and Ahmed Jumaa - a crash course in rugby.

The coaching clinic at Repton School was part of a feature to be shown on Dubai Sports television.

The rugby players are conscious of how important such airtime can be in their bid to spread the word about their sport, especially given the profile footballers have in the Emirati community.

"In the future if the local sports channels come and support us, we can become famous, then other young local players will see that, and they will want to come and follow us," Ali Mohammed, the Wasps and UAE winger, said.

When Mohammed earned some publicity by becoming one of the first Emirati international players earlier this year, his phone buzzed with friends he had forgotten he had.

Many of them were players who had tried rugby, but drifted away disillusioned with the fact they were represented by an abstract entity - the Arabian Gulf - and a group of expatriates besides. Having seen him make the grade for the nascent UAE team, he hopes they will now be encouraged to return.

"Playing in the Asian Five Nations and having local Arabs in the team was great," he said.

"A lot of people have seen us in the newspapers. From next year it will be big."

Few of the UAE's rugby clubs have Emirati members, and those who do number single figures.

Dubai Wasps have the largest contingent, and their coach, Apollo Perelini, hopes his players can help lead the Arabic rugby revolution.

"If they can become heroes, who kids aspire to follow, eventually we will get more and more people playing rugby," Perelini, a former Samoa player, said.

"When I was a kid growing up in New Zealand, everyone aspired to be an All Black.

"There was always a player you wanted to be like, but there is nothing like that here.

"No one aspires to play rugby. They play football because the UAE are represented by UAE nationals. They don't want to play rugby because it is an expat-community game.

"Our development plan at Dubai Wasps is to develop Emirati players so they can represent us, but also so they can represent their country."

Shaker is one of three rugby-playing brothers - like the Jumaas but without the profile. He appeared as a replacement against Hong Kong in the UAE's Asian Five Nations campaign, and Perelini think there is plenty more to come.

"He is aggressive and his rugby brain has developed so much in the last two years, it has gone from strength to strength, and his skill level is high," Perelini said.

Shaker has the benefit of being able to prop down next to an experienced hooker with Dubai Wasps.

"I'm going to get him in the gym, put some weight on him and some power behind him," Trevor Leota, the former Samoa player and now Wasps player-coach, said of Shaker. "We think he will be a very good player for the future."