While this year’s Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament will be hotly contested by all the participating teams, it will be remembered forever by one in particular. It will be the last time that the Arabian Gulf – effectively the host nation of the Dubai Sevens – will compete together as a team.
In a move to develop rugby in smaller nations, the International Rugby Board (IRB) decreed last year that each country must have its own individual rugby association. As such, the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU), which represents Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will no longer be recognised as an official union.
‘It’s truly sad,’ says Arabian Gulf captain Sean Hurley. ‘It’s 40 years of history coming to an end. [The AGRFU] had about 20 years of IRB membership, so it’ll be an emotional day on that last day of the Dubai Sevens. It certainly will be for me – I’ve been a part of rugby here for 10 years now. It’s my adopted nation, and you still throw your blood, sweat and tears, and your heart and soul, into it.’
The IRB hopes that by encouraging each nation to have its own union or rugby association, there will be more incentive to develop grassroots rugby. The problem is, of course, that the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union was established because its member states weren’t large enough to run or maintain a union or an association independently. Though rugby has grown exponentially in the past decades, this is still the case today.
‘The eventual goal of the IRB is to get locals playing, which is fair enough,’ concedes Sean. ‘That’s what they’re working hard on at the moment and that’s fantastic – there are a lot of academies around. But it’s going to take a few years to get those guys phased in.’
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to see past the immediate effects that these changes will have on local rugby. So what lies ahead for rugby in the region? ‘It’s going to be interesting,’ says Sean. ‘The UAE will thankfully go to the Asian Five Nations next year in place of the Arabian Gulf. The majority of the Arabian Gulf players are from the UAE, but it’s sad for the guys from Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. We’re petitioning the IRB to have some of those guys included, because there are some great young players who won’t have opportunity to play high-level rugby any more. They’re saying Bahrain will set up its own rugby association, but it’ll be eight or nine years before they make it up [reach the standard of play currently played by Arabian Gulf]. Oman doesn’t even have an association forming next year, which means players there won’t have the opportunity to play.’
The changes have come at a time when the Arabian Gulf was just starting to exert its influence on the international circuit. After years of disappointing results, the team made a huge impact at last year’s HSBC Asian Five Nations, beating Korea and Hong Kong, and putting on solid performances against group heavyweights Kazakhstan and Japan.
However, if there was ever a way to end an era, it would be stepping out in front of a 50,000-strong crowd at the Sevens Stadium. Sean and the Arabian Gulf players will need all the local support they can muster, having been drawn in a group with Samoa, Wales and Kenya. Yet far from being fazed, Sean says he couldn’t have asked for more. ‘As an amateur athlete – as a competitor – you always want to aspire to be the best and have the opportunity to compete against the best. Look at our group – we have last year’s Sevens Series champions [Samoa], the Sevens World Champions [Wales] and a team like Kenya, who are always devastating and have one of the largest fan bases in the UAE.’
It’s not likely that Sean and his team will get a result against any of these teams, but they can at least be assured of a send-off they’ll never forget.
The Dubai Rugby Sevens takes place at The Sevens Stadium on December 2-4. For info, see www.dubairugby7s.com