x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Olympic 2016 hopes for a UAE rugby team

The goal is to have a national rugby team in time for the next Olympic games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Pupils at the Al Wuheida School for Boys take part in the HSBC UAE Rugby Pathway Programme.
Pupils at the Al Wuheida School for Boys take part in the HSBC UAE Rugby Pathway Programme.

DUBAI // The UAE Rugby Association hopes a local school holds a team that could help the country take on the world's mightiest players in the 2016 Olympics.

That would be a long road for a group of Emirati teens forced to practise on shaded concrete between classes at Al Wuheida School for Boys, in Deira.

Mohammed Falaknaz, the chairman of the rugby association, knew Al Wuheida was the place to start grooming future talent, with its strong tradition of sport and a trophy cabinet to match.

"We only know soccer, volleyball or basketball, which are all the main sports," Mr Falaknaz said. "When rugby was introduced, they looked at it differently and didn't understand the concept. The ball looks different, if not funny to them."

The association, backed by HSBC, is introducing the game to locals and has approached five schools for its UAE Players Pathway Programme.

Its goal is to have a team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Ben Van Rooyen, one of the coaches, said learning the basics was difficult at first but once the players grasped it, they immediately started to play naturally.

"When they first started they thought it was American football," Mr Van Rooyen said. "They ran over the line and bounced the ball off the ground and did a dance. We had to tell them they had to put the ball down to score."

He said some of the young players were using their skills in other sports to their advantage, citing the case of Mohammed Khamis, 17, whose experience with the UAE national volleyball team gives him a natural edge.

"By using his speed, size and skills he could get somewhere," Mr Van Rooyen said.

Mohammed said he knew nothing about rugby two months ago, but he is now hooked.

"I like the big hits and the fast pace of the game," he said.

The players have yet to graduate to full, 15-man Union rugby. Sevens is proving enough of a challenge.

Omar Sultan, 16, said he planned to play rugby when he left school as he liked the physical nature of the game.

Abdullah Mohammed, 17, said he had only seen the game on television and still did not know much about the sport.

"I never thought I'd be playing it when I first saw it on television, as it mainly looks so dangerous," Abdullah said. "After learning the basic drills and knowing how to tackle and fall properly, it is not dangerous at all."

Mr Falaknaz said the UAE needed to be present in every Olympic sport.

"We need to wave the flag in every sports arena we have," he said. "We believe we can do that in rugby. We are working from a top-to-bottom design."

A national team exists but it consists of mainly expatriate players.

"We need to feed that national team and where are we going to get those players from?" Mr Falaknaz said.

Next year, the association plans to coach the current group, aged between 15 and 17, and a younger group to feed into the older squads. The goal is to give them more time on the pitch by the time they leave school.

"We have the Asian Games in 2014 and they will be at the right age to represent the country in the Rugby Sevens," Mr Falaknaz said.

"We want to compete in every competition and we've got a solid system, which is the top-to-bottom system. We will grow the other ages until we get to all the schools."

He said the pupils who took part in the programme would see the game's virtues.

"It is a far more interesting game than others and it has values we want the kids to learn," Mr Falaknaz said. "It is also a sport that demands strong and intelligent athletes. Health and sport go well together.

"The school systems also promote sports to keep the kids healthy and something to pass on generation to generation."

The four-year programme plans to target 4,000 Emirati children in 25 schools every year.

Other schools participating this year are Al Ma'arif School, New World School, Al Sharawi School and Al Safa School. There are also plans to extend into Abu Dhabi.

eharnan@thenational.ae