The head of UAE rugby has warned that the future of the Emirati rugby is in a precarious position even though the number of local players taking up the game continues to swell and has even resulted in an additional team being created for this season.
UAE Shaheen head into their third competitive season in the Community League having built up solid experience in their opening two campaigns, while the hunger for rugby among locals is so demanding, a second team has been established.
Shaheen are sure to gain plenty of experience by being exposed to other Gulf countries this year, playing in the Gulf Conference, alongside Muscat, Bahrain 2nds and Kuwait.
“There are two teams, it’s giving players more chance to play,” said UAE Rugby Federation secretary general Qais Al Dhalai.
“We have a lot of players and the players and coaches asked for this. They want to play more games so we open more doors for them. Two teams suggests numbers are growing. They played last week v Muscat. In the training sessions we have lots of players.
Yet, all is not well. Swelling numbers also brings its own problems, with indigenous players seeking financial gain by continuing along the Shaheen Player Pathway Programme (PPP).
“There are many excuses by the Emirati players and it’s a big challenge to retain them and keep them interested because of soccer, which is not doing any good for other sports,” added Al Dhalai.
“They are offering players money and retainers, but other sports don’t offer that. Rugby is one of the sports players are asking for financial benefit from and we don’t want to go down that route.
“Our idea is that we need to ignite the love of the sport in these players. If we go down the route of subsidising and paying them, where’s the passion and love?
“We can sustain it now but not in the future. In our pool of 50 players currently we could afford to pay them, but what about the future when the numbers grow into the thousands?
“It’s not our priority. We opened the door for them to play in the Gulf Conference and we are pleased by the turnout in training and matches. This is not our way to run the organisation, we will never go that way, because if we do we will lose, we will fail one day.”
In addition to the success of bringing players through via the PPP in recent years, Al Dhalai added that an ‘Elite’ group has also been created this summer, aimed at further developing the cream of the crop among emerging Emirati talent.
It is encouraging that among the swathes of local players, there are enough being picked out as superior talents, which will aid the prospects of Emiratis establishing themselves under UAE head coach Apollo Perelini at senior national team level.
It is the idea of the ‘Elite’ group to feed into UAE Shaheen and the national side,” said Al Dhalai.
“Shaheen has an age group from 18 all the way to 32. The Elite is mainly players 18/19-years-old to feed the national team youth levels, Under-18 to U20 and when they grow they can play for the seniors later on.
“The Elite is the concentrated group of players that Apollo can train for the UAE. It’s a bit higher than the PPP.
“The players who are graduating from the PPP are good players and are staying with us. The proof is that the players in the programme for the last three or four years are still enjoying it. Some new players are leaving but some are staying.”
Kandy require a bonus point win at home to Bahrain next week if they are to be the first non-UAE team to lift the Western Clubs Champions League after an entertaining 29-29 draw with Abu Dhabi Harlequins in Sri Lanka.
It could have been victory for Sean Wijesinghe’s side after Lavanga Perera dived over for a try in the final minute but Arshad Jamaldeen’s touchline conversion struck an upright to leave the sides level.
It means Quins are in the driving seat to retain the title they won last year, but Kandy can join them on eight points with a try-scoring bonus point win at home to visiting Bahrain next Friday.
It is a position Kandy coach Wijesinghe thought was not possible for his side.
“I’m looking forward to the next game and we have a good chance to win and with it the title, which would be the first time,” said the Kandy coach.
“It would be a great thing for the club and country as we have never done this before. I think it will be a good game and with a better crowd too as people think we have a chance and will start believing in us. I don’t think they ever thought we would do this well.”
Kandy trailed throughout the game, down 29-17 at one point near the end, but Wijesinghe was proud of his squad – who featured five schoolboys and were depleted by a number of senior players away with the national team.
“I was happy with our debutants, especially the schoolboys we had playing,” added Wijesinghe.
“Out of our 23-man squad, 15 were on the bench last year so it was good to give them game time. They showed heart and guts to go up against a bigger side. I’m happy but we have a lot to improve on.
“Quins had a great start. Out boys took a lot of time to settle down. But a try and a penalty gave us a bit of confidence and after that we started playing our natural game.
“We gave Quins a few easy tries though and we have to look into that and see what part of our systems didn’t work well. I’m happy with the result but we have to work on our systems.”
Mike McFarlane’s visitors scored first straight from kick-off in Nittawela when Kandy made a mess of collecting the high ball. Eventually a scrum was awarded five metres out and scrum-half Andrew Semple fed fly-half Joe Teasdale who went over the whitewash to score.
Semple potted the extras and then a pentalty to make it 10-0 before Thilina Wijesinghe reduced the gap with a three-pointer.
Anurudda Wilwara got Kandy back in touch with a try in the left corner and the scores were tied up when Wijesinghe converted impressively.
Captain Ben Bolger finished off a forwards move just before the break to re-establish Quins’ lead – Semple converting to make it 17-10 to Quins at the break.
A superb run from Wilwara early in the second half drew the hosts level again – stepping three defenders on his way to the line, with Wijesinghe making no mistake from the tee.
Two quick tries though for Quins put them in control. Former Abu Dhabi Saracens man Sean Stevens finished off an excellent move with Semple’s conversion making it 24-17 and it was soon 29-17 when full-back Jona Marshall exploited a gap to dive over at the left corner – Semple was just wide with his kick.
A penalty try gave the hosts a glimmer of hope inside the final 10 minutes to leave them five points adrift. It was beyond 80 minutes when Perera dived over out wide in a final flourish, but Jamaldeen’s kick, although it had the distance, came back off the right post to leave Kandy content with a draw.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins will retain their Western Clubs Champions League trophy with victory against Kandy on Friday – but Mike McFarlane has described the game as simply “another stepping stone” towards the Gulf rugby season kick-off next week.
Quins won a thrilling contest 36-32 against Bahrain last Friday in the curtain-raiser for the Asia Rugby-organised tournament, but both teams must now travel to Sri Lanka as it is held in multiple countries for the first time.
Although McFarlane has bigger priorities, he is of course keen to retain a trophy that kick-started their unprecedented haul of silverware in 2016/17.
“It’s another stepping stone in our preparations for the season starting next week,” he said.
“However, the incentive of retaining the trophy is there, I’m not going to deny that. That aside, it’s another opportunity for players within a large squad to stake a claim for a starting jersey by performing well against a high quality outfit.
“We know they are dangerous with some large forwards and a back line that’s electric on the sevens circuit so no doubt they will look to play expansive rugby.
“All I can ask of the players is that we step up, put into practice the focuses we have looked at this week and then reflect on whether we have been clinical enough in achieving our targets.”
Kandy have featured in all three editions of the tournament so far, since they first entered along with Abu Dhabi Saracens, Doha and Kazakhstan’s Olymp in 2015.
Sean Wijesinghe’s side are heavily depleted by a raft of players away with the Sri Lanka national team busy preparing for the second leg of the Asia Sevens Series in South Korea next weekend, but he insists it’s a great chance for his youngsters to make their mark.
“We will not be playing 11 of our senior players due to the ongoing Asian Sevens Series, as well as a few players recovering from injuries,” Wijesinghe revealed.
“But it will be a great opportunity for the young boys to show their talents on a big stage. That will give the young boys a great opportunity to play some tough opponents. There’ll be six debutants, five of whom are school leavers who only finished their A Levels last week.
“We’ve had three weeks of training as our season is still eight weeks away.
“We played Quins last year and they are a very good side. I was told this year’s team is even better so we know what is in front of us, but I’m pretty sure our boys will adapt.”
Kandy have travelled to the UAE for both previous editions of the tournament and Wijesinghe said it is special for them to be able to bring the tournament to Sri Lanka.
“It is a great opportunity for Kandy Sports Club to host this tournament for the first time in Sri Lanka and we are really looking forward to it,” he said.
“We are grateful to be in this tournament for the third consecutive year. The first year we came runners-up and last year we didn’t do well, losing both games. But this year is so special for us as both games will be on our home pitch.”
For Quins fans not travelling with the team, the game will be streamed live on thepapare.com