Rugby is my boomerang sport. No matter how many times I say I’m giving it up, whether due to age or injury, I always find myself playing again. I’m still not sure what it is about rugby that keeps me coming back. There’s the gamesmanship, the fitness benefits, the competitive element and, of course, the social aspect – but none of these really explain why I’m standing on a training pitch on a sweltering Monday evening, preparing myself for two hours of tough physical exertion with the Jebel Ali Dragons.
Though the season doesn’t kick off until late September, the Dragons are keen to get an early start over their rivals and have been training since early August to ensure they hit the ground (and the opposition) running. Indeed, competition in the UAE Premier League is fierce.
‘Last season saw four teams in the Gulf pushing for the silverware, which means we have a very exciting campaign ahead,’ explains first-team captain Paul Hart, who’s hoping his side will compete for silverware in both the 15s and sevens format this season, after winning the Gulf Men’s tournament at Dubai Sevens in 2011. ‘From a Dragons perspective, we’re looking to convert our Dubai Sevens success into the 15-a-side leagues. This will be a real challenge considering the competition, but I’m quietly confident that we can.’
The ‘competition’ Paul refers to has much to do with the rapidly increasing standards of the domestic game. ‘We’re seeing more and more former professional players arriving in Dubai, many of whom are still in their mid to late twenties. This means the strong players [already here] are learning from these top-level players and raising their game, which has had a snowball effect across the region.’
My training session is indicative of the high standards that Paul is referring to. Drills are fast-paced and hard work, and while I find the heat stifling, I’m buoyed by the collective enthusiasm of the squad. The pedigree of the coaching staff is also impressive – head coach ‘Junior’ Shane Thornton is a former New Zealand sevens player, while forwards coach Michael Reid, represented New Zealand side Auckland Blues.
Though standards are high, the Dragons are surprisingly accommodating to all players. Not only do they field a men’s first and second team (like many of Dubai’s rugby clubs), but also teams for ladies, veterans and a social team, as well as various youth schemes.
The club’s far-reaching appeal is doubtless a significant driving force in the development of the international game. A number of Dragons players have represented the UAE (a player is eligible to play for the national team after living here for three years), and the standard of 15s rugby here is higher than ever as a result of the UAE’s participation in the HSBC Asian Five Nations tournament. Exposure to teams such as Hong Kong and Asian powerhouse Japan is fantastic experience for the players, though the development of the international game still has some way to go.
‘There is huge potential here,’ agrees forwards coach Michael Reid. ‘However, with this comes many challenges not faced in other countries. The UAE is very transient, and we see teams having a good season then falling away if they lose a couple of key players. The key to growing the game internationally is tapping into younger players and working on academies and development systems.’
Reid points out that the sevens format will always be popular here thanks to the Dubai Sevens showpiece sports event, which takes place each December. And with rugby sevens making its Olympic debut in Rio in 2016, there’s even more incentive for promising young players to continue their rugby career in the UAE in the hope of representing the country at the next Games.
At the end of the session, however, I’m prioritising shower and bed over Olympic glory. But while I might be dizzy with exhaustion, I know I’ll still be back next week, despite my better judgement.