Community rugby in Dubai

Who says rugby is only about joining a team and keeping fit?


With all the action at the Sevens at the start of this month, it’s no wonder Dubai’s got rugby fever. But it’s not just about having fun on the pitch – the CNCF Arabian Knights rugby club is also giving Dubai’s rugby-loving kids and their families the opportunity to be part of a community environment, as well as supporting a great cause in the process.

Established in 2008 by chairman Neil Palmer and his wife Louise, along with like-minded friends James Fagan and Ioan Macrae, they were keen to set up a non-profit club that followed the ethos of the International Rugby Board, And for the last two years, the club has been supporting the great work done by the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation (CNCF). This year, money raised by the club will be going towards the CNCF’s work to support children in Mongolia and Vietnam, where underprivileged kids are given access to much needed medical care, education, social support and job opportunities.

‘Linking with the charity gives some kind of drive for people to be involved with something that’s just a little bit different rather than a traditional rugby club,’ explains Neil. ‘Normally, money raised by a club would be going towards things such as end-of-year tours, whereas we try to keep our money to put towards the general development of the club, such as buying new kit, then the surplus is given to our chosen charity, which in our case is the CNCF.’

Initially based at JESS in the Arabian Ranches, and now from Sports City, the club has grown rapidly in both numbers and influence. ‘We started with 134 kids, from under-sixes to under-11s,’ says Neil. ‘This past year, we had 335 kids involved, from under-fives to under-18s, as well as a girls’ team too.’

Alongside winning plenty of plates and cups at the UAE’s rugby tournaments, what makes Arabian Knights stand out is the sportsmanship of its young members. ‘We tend to pick up a lot of fair player awards, because the ethos we teach our kids is that they should play hard, but play fair – we encourage sportsmanlike behaviour with both our kids and our parents,’ says Neil. As well as making new friends and getting essential exercise, being part of the rugby club gives kids a true sense of community, where young players have to develop skills such as teamwork, self-discipline and developing individuality on the pitch. ‘We’re a very close-knit community,’ he adds.

Off the pitch, kids are made aware about the good cause that the club supports, whether it’s by wearing kit sporting the CNCF motto, ‘It’s for the kids’, or meeting legendary player Apollo Perelini, who also dons a CNCF shirt. Last year, the under-18s were given the unique opportunity to see the CNCF’s work in Vietnam first-hand. ‘We volunteered in shelters, medical centres and schools there for a week, and the boys did everything from helping with newborns to holding rugby clinics or taking kids to a waterpark for a fun day out,’ says Neil. ‘It was a huge life experience for the 12 boys that we sent – most of the kids they were working with were orphaned, destitute or from a background of abuse. The trip counted as credits towards their IB qualifications, and they’re currently working on a presentation about their experience that they’re going to give in front of the CNCF.’

A large part of the CNCF Arabian Knights’ success is the involvement of parents, many of whom give up their free time to volunteer as coaches or general support for the club. In return for their efforts, volunteer coaches are sent on official IRB training courses for coaching and officiating. ‘Most of them are truly passionate about it anyway,’ says Neil. ‘A lot of our volunteers have their kids in the game, have played to a good level themselves and just want to pass down to their own children and others what they’ve learned along the way, so in the last few years we’ve developed a great community atmosphere and spirit.’ Mums and dads can also get involved through the annual CNCF gala dinner, which was held at the beginning of December before the start of the Sevens.

Essentially, everything at the club goes full-circle, explains Neil, from small kids just starting out to adult teams that play at a competitive level, and it’s this sense of family that appeals so much to the club’s members.
For kids and parents who want to get involved, whether it’s playing or helping behind the scenes, check out one of the Saturday training sessions, or log on to the Arabian Knights’ website, which has contact details for the club. While a lot of the age groups are already fully subscribed (‘Our groups tend to be tied to squad size, and we ensure we have a good ratio of qualified coaches to players,’ says Neil), there’s still plenty of opportunities to help out – whether it’s offering sponsorship or even helping with the refreshments (the long list of sponsors give a clue as to the club’s popularity with the grown ups too, which includes DHL, MoveOne, Sucden, Kelly Steel Engineering, Lamprell, Global Eye, Fresh Express, Reed Specialist Recruitment and Cracknell landscaping). ‘We’re always open to ideas, and we want the club to move forward. Just because we started small doesn’t mean we can’t evolve into something even bigger and better than we already have.’
To find out more visit Training sessions take place at Dubai Sports City on Saturdays: 4pm-5pm, under-fives, -sixes, -sevens and -eights; 3pm-5pm, under-nines, -10s, -11s and 12s; 5pm-7pm, under-14s.

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