x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Youth rugby players in UAE are starting to make some headway abroad

UAE-based players like Iziq Foa'i are starting to build a stronger bridge to Europe, writes Paul Radley.

Iziq Foa’i, a teenager from Abu Dhabi, has sparked interest from the London Quins. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Iziq Foa’i, a teenager from Abu Dhabi, has sparked interest from the London Quins. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

The fact that Iziq Foa'i, 17, a schoolboy from Abu Dhabi, received commendable reviews after his stint training at the London Harlequins academy will surprise few who have seen him play.

The New Zealand-born teenager figured in both the union and league codes for Abu Dhabi's Quins senior teams towards the end of last season. He plays like a man already.

Having spent a week training in London, the English Premiership side will now be monitoring his progress in the UAE and they want to see him again when schooling allows.

It is a credit to the player himself, of course. But Foa'i's success also has wider point: it shows there is now a system in place in this country for young players to get noticed.

There has never been a shortage of highly skilled schoolboy rugby players in the UAE. However, there has never been an obvious path from the Middle East to the professional game.

Abu Dhabi-born Jonny Macdonald made it to the Scotland sevens side essentially by chance, after impressing in the latter days of the Arabian Gulf union.

James Love, a product of Bahrain who was Macdonald's contemporary in the Gulf's World Cup Sevens side of 2009, took a similar route to a professional contract with London Scottish.

Jordan Onojaife, meanwhile, is now on the books of the Northampton Saints, having shone at a training camp during holidays from his school in Dubai.

None of them had the benefit of being members of a club with such strong associations with professional clubs as Abu Dhabi Quins now enjoy with their London affiliates.

Abu Dhabi Saracens and Xodus Wasps, too, are in the process of establishing similar bonds with the London clubs whose names they have borrowed.

The London Quins academy are scheduled to head to the capital next month for a training week, and Foa'i isn't the lone player they will be watching.

"I will certainly be looking at the younger age groups to see if there are any players we should be keeping an eye on," said Howard Graham, the head coach.

The teenage rugby players of the capital should be wading over each other to get noticed.

Despite the uncertainties over the prospects of the senior game here, the future appears brighter than ever for young players aspiring to a career in rugby.

pradley@thenational.ae

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