Rules end 17 years of 'brotherhood' for Gulf rugby team
DUBAI // Mark Gathercole remembers his first match with the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union team. The year was 1995, the opponents were Kenya and the venue was a sand pit at the old Dubai Exiles ground. The squad, made up of expatriates from across the GCC, won that International Rugby Board World Cup qualifier. While the team did not make it to the next stage, it was a day that Mr Gathercole, now 43, will never forget.
"To get the opportunity to play at that level is every rugby player's dream," he said. The Arabian Gulf team, which embraced the motto "brotherhood", was formed in 1993. The squad bade an emotional farewell to international competition last night with their final HSBC Asian Five Nations match, against Korea. New guidelines from the International Rugby Board will change the face of the squad. Countries represented in the Arabian Gulf union must now form independent teams made up of passport holders or long-term residents of the respective nations.
This leaves the international careers of players such as Taif al Delamie in doubt. The 24-year-old Omani, who lives and works in Dublin, has been flying to Dubai for training and matches for the past three years. He is unsure if his residency in Dubai or time spent with the Arabian Gulf team will qualify him for the UAE team. Rugby in Oman is in its fledgling stages and the nation is nowhere near ready to form an international team.
At best, he could be facing many of his former teammates on the pitch in the future, something players are used to at the club level but not on an international circuit. "That would be strange," al Delamie said. "Honestly, I have never played for a team that has got on so well. If it was purely down to the [fun] we have had, we would have won the World Cup and Asian Five Nations by now." The Arabian Gulf team, a select squad of the best players in the region, played its first match in July 1993. Andy Cole, now the union's chairman, was a part of the original squad.
"We did most of our training in Bahrain in those days, it being the most senior rugby club," he said. "We would have training schedules sent to us and we would go off and do our own training as best you could, then we would have training camps where we would fly and spend a weekend together, trying to get as many games in as we could. "I remember running up and down the fire escape at an Abu Dhabi hotel to try and get fit, something I would not recommend in the heat of June."
As the UAE has grown, so has the level of its rugby talent. About 70 per cent of the Arabian Gulf squad are residents of the Emirates. While the newly formed UAE Rugby Association has not stipulated the criteria for team selection, it is not expected to rule out long-term expatriates. That would make it more feasible for the UAE to field a national team. For Gathercole, the new regulations mean the end of an era. The former Harlequins player moved to Dubai from London after reading about the team's participation in the World Cup qualifiers in 1993. He is the team's most-capped player, with 33.
"I remember saying, 'I fancy a bit of that'," he said. What he didn't expect were the strong friendships he has developed with teammates. "These are guys who would do anything for each other," he said. "I consider them my family, every one of them, those who have gone before and the team of today. "Having played for so long, it has been a major part of my life here in Dubai. "It's a pretty sad and empty feeling. It's a bit like someone dying."