As Dubai's newest rugby stadium prepares to open we catch up with the chairman of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union to talk about the state of the game in the region.
Rugby in the desert. It’s incongruous to say the least. Breezing about on a pitch may be one thing, but the prospect of sticking one’s head into a heaving pit of an eight-man scrum leaves me less than stoked.
But Dubai rugby has forged a name for itself. Speak to anyone who’s into their game and they’ll tell you that the emirate is fast becoming synonymous with a hard, fast style of sevens rugby. So much so that Emirates airline has planted the flag for a stadium on Al Ain Road that will put rugby at the city’s heart.
‘Dubai rugby is getting a world-class facility,’ says Dave Skidmore, chairman of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU), which will be making its home at the new ground. The stadium has been named The Sevens in tribute to the competition that has kept rugby-driven masses flocking to Dubai for almost 40 years, and which will be played in November of this year. ‘There aren’t many independent facilities that offer six pitches, 14 changing rooms and a large social facility, including swimming pools and netball courts,’ notes Skidmore. ‘It’s going to be a great community hub.’
For those unfamiliar with the faster variant of rugby, sevens uses union rules, but cuts the number of players from 15 per side to seven. A match lasts 15 minutes (down from a standard 80-minute game). It all adds up to a hard, fast game, where scoring tends to be easier (with more space on the pitch) than the traditional game. The added excitement, alongside a simpler format than its grown-up brother, means it’s often a more attractive game to watch and appeals to a wider audience.
The Dubai Sevens has traditionally been held at the Dubai Exiles rugby ground and forms one leg of the IRB Sevens World Series. After New Zealand’s win last year, this November will see the tournament will become the first event to use the new ground.
The Sevens will feature a permanent grandstand with seating for 4,000, along with temporary structures around the main pitch to cater for up to 40,000 sports fans. The stadium will also be the venue for the Rugby World Cup Sevens, which Dubai is hosting in March next year.
The Sevens is the sort of project you’d expect to find in a Rugby-mad country such as New Zealand. It suggests the sport has taken over the town. Yet it’s cricket and football, not rugby, being played by groups of kids in parking lots or dominating the talk of taxi drivers. Does union really have the sort of appeal that such a structure demands, and can that extend beyond one annual competition and the expats it traditionally attracts?
Rugby found its way into Dubai’s Right To Play programme last year. The project is designed to boost the amount of sport going on in schools around the world and has HRH Princess Haya bint Al Hussein (wife of Sheikh Mohammed) as its UAE patron. Since rugby was included in the curriculum, the appeal has grown rapidly. Already over 600 rugby lessons have taken place and 15,000 students have been scrumming down in gym classes in schools (many of which are Arabic) around Dubai.
‘We’re finding that Emiratis are really taking to the game,’ says Skidmore. ‘Once they find it’s not quite as physical as they first thought – when they’ve bounced back up a couple of times – they realise it’s not so bad.’
Surprisingly, AGRFU is finding that girls are often taking to it more than boys. ‘Having rugby accepted in the curriculum has been a massive boost. Combine that with the new facility, which will offer coaching courses, and the future of rugby in the UAE looks bright,’ Skidmore says.
Established teams, such as the Dubai Exiles, have been going for 40 years now, but a clear sign of the sport having any long-term future among locals will come with the emergence of more teams and more Emiratis appearing on the lineups. There are already teams with a strong Emirati base, such as the Dubai Falcons, but it’s reckoned that Right To Play and the new Sevens stadium will provide the sort of grassroots backing that the sport needs to take root locally.
So is rugby the next stage in Dubai’s endless quest for self-definition? Perhaps. The city has long been on the map for rugby’s international audience, but whether it can forge a local standing remains to be seen. The response from Right To Play is promising, and The Sevens venue will offer space across its five other pitches to the various rugby union teams that have made their home in Dubai. For now, we’ll have to wait and see…