While on the field the game is thriving in the Emirates, the country’s mounting economic concerns are having a huge knock-on effect off the pitch.
Sponsorships are drying up because companies are increasingly tightening their belts, while pitch hire fees continue to sky rocket to astronomical levels. And whereas there has always and will continue to be a myriad of players switching allegiances during the off-season, clubs are finding it harder to keep hold of star names as rivals dangle carrots that are increasingly difficult to match.
Sponsoring rugby events and teams in the UAE has and continues to be big business. The Dubai Sevens is backed by HSBC, while Dubai Exiles swapped one brand giant for another last year when Porsche replaced Canterbury as their principal jersey sponsor.
Three seasons ago the majority of Dubai-based clubs played for free at The Sevens as part of their participation in the UAE Premiership or Conference. Now, second-tier clubs fork out in the region of Dh6,000 per game for pitch hire, a post-match meal and one drink per player.
It’s not as if the oil price crash the country is currently gripped by has affected only small fry like Wasps though. It shows no favourtism, with last year’s leading lights, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, falling foul of faltering finances.
The club has this summer lost long-time backer Etihad Airways, meaning it could be forced to pull the plug on its regionally renowned youth tournament next season, while as it stands, 3,000 playing and training jerseys and vests will be arriving without a main sponsor.
The club parted with Dh773,000 last season for 1,104 hours of use of its home field at Zayed Sports City – which advertises a full pitch for hire at Dh750 per session.
Exiles, meanwhile, are set to cut all post-match meals for players next season after spending Dh65,000 last season.
Yet, while every team is floundering to stay afloat, the action and athletes on the field continue to flourish.
The standard of the UAE and West Asia Premiership has visibly increased each year, with Apollo Perelini picking his UAE squad for this year’s Asia Rugby Championship exclusively from the top division for the first time.
The UAE are ranked 72nd by World Rugby – the highest they have been since joining in December 2012 – which is testament to the growing standard of the game here.
Yet, the success on the green and gold pitches of grass and sand goes hand in hand with the growing distress off it, with clubs increasingly being driven into the red.
It can’t continue like this. If clubs like Wasps wilt and die, it won’t be long before others and the game in general gets stung too.
Fears are growing that Dubai Wasps could be forced to fold before the start of the new rugby season.
Sponsors withdrawing their backing and depleted player numbers are major concerns for the club, which has been battling to keep their heads above water for a number of years.
Wasps lost major sponsor the Rose & Crown Dubai this week, while other sponsorship deals are yet to be renewed, with the club fearing a tie with Mediclinic could also go.
That would leave the club with a Dh50,000 deficit heading into the season, with Wasps’ hierarchy also fearing a threadbare squad could be depleted still further by the lure of lucrative offers from rival clubs.
Joint chairmen Laurence Parker and Ben Rothwell sent messages to players this week asking for each to commit to paying a Dh500 membership fee for the coming season by early August, otherwise they believe the only decision left open to them would be to call it a day.
“We had a meeting of senior players and committee members to discuss the financial situation this week and we have a workable plan moving forward, but it does mean cutting our cloth accordingly,” said Rothwell.
“We won’t start the season if we aren’t 100 per cent sure we can finish the season – it wouldn’t be fair to other teams in the league.”
Rothwell says a playing squad of 30 is needed to carry on, while he said dropping down from the UAE Conference to the third-tier Community League could be a viable option.
“The main issues are that we lost our major sponsor and other sponsorship deals haven’t yet been renewed and we aren’t optimistic, given the financial situation here,” added Rothwell.
“Coupled with the fact that the cost of playing and training here has continued to rise. Three years ago all clubs had pitch hire at The Sevens paid as part of being in the league.
“When that changed the costs obviously massively increased, and now you are looking at the best part of Dh6,000 a game if you want to play, provide meals and a post match drink for each player.”
Wasps have seen a flurry of players leave in recent seasons, whether it be for another team or simply because of injury, retirement or relocation.
Despite this, Rothwell says a core of players remain, although he fears more departures this summer.
“We have a strong player base and a committed group of lads who want to make it work,” he said.
“It’s just hard to recruit players when some of the bigger and newer clubs are able to offer players other opportunities such as playing in the Premiership and also better facilities.”
It is a situation Wasps are not alone in facing, but it is the latest bump of what has been a rocky road for the club ever since they started the 2014/15 season with a Dh10,000 fine from the UAE Rugby Federation for failing to send a club member on a medical course.
They finished the campaign rock bottom of the UAE Premiership to suffer relegation and instead of bouncing straight back, floundered in the second tier, finishing sixth.
It is a malaise that only deepened last season as they finished 10th of 11 teams before finishing rock bottom of the Conference Bottom 5.
They are also currently without a coach after Mike Pugsley departed at the end of the season to return home to Wales.
Rothwell revealed that the club has agreed a deal with UK-based charity Joining Jack to play under their banner for the coming season and be the charity’s Dubai ambassador, but that concern over the club’s future jeopardises this now.
“We are going to play under their banner this season. It’s great to share the message throughout not only our senior men’s rugby squad, but the ladies squad as well as five netball teams,” added Rothwell.
“I’m hopeful that we can secure our position to enable this to happen. We’re giving away the naming rights of the club, like we had previously arranged with Xodus, on a benevolent basis.
“It will give more visibility to the charity as well as maybe help us with the recruitment of players and good will in the region.”
It’s an unchanged side, as expected, for the Lions. You never change a winning side really.
The guys performed exceptionally well last week. Two tries to nil against the mighty All Blacks so they’ll be very focused and driven. They’ll want to go for the jugular and it’s a great opportunity for the Lions, especially with a French referee and the interpretations from the southern to the northern hemisphere. That could be a tricky one with the penalty counts and so on.
However, it’s not about the referee, it’s about the two sides and the All Blacks will be vastly improved on last week. Beauden Barrett, by his own admission, didn’t excel with the boot. He missed three very kickable kicks which could have meant the All Blacks would have won. Subsequently the Lions took the scalp and that was a great win. It kept the series alive and that’s great for spectators and neutrals alike.
It goes down to the wire and Warren Gatland’s going to instill that hard edge approach, that physical confrontation. There were question marks about whether the Lions were offside on a number of occasions with their defensive line, however, you deal with what’s in front of you and the All Blacks will really need to be improved this week.
Losing Sonny Bill Williams was a massive blow to them and playing with 14 men for three quarters of the game was obviously telling towards the end. But they still stuck at it so that’s testament to how good they are.
But the Lions have a great chance. They have the two kicking options at 10 and 12 with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. I was surprised that Ben Te’o wasn’t starting the second Test, however, they performed well, created opportunities and there were a couple of line breaks and two well-worked tries for the Lions, which was very impressive.
The All Blacks, as I said though, will be improved. Their defensive qualities will step up a gear. As you know they’re not a side that will lay down and die. They’re very formidable in the breakdown area where Sean O’Brien and Sam Warburton imposed themselves, so they’ll be looking at that and looking to take these guys off and out of the ruck area to stop them causing too many problems. The breakdown area’s going to be massive today. And you’re probably going to see a New Zealand side flying out of the blocks.
I have to say that the Lions have been excellent with their performances, with their defensive qualities and they’ve created chances. Their line breaks were brilliant last week, they were a bit more clinical than they have been, which is great to see. Hopefully we can see a bit more of that.
There’ll be a bit more kicking too.
It’s going to be one hell of an explosive game and I’m looking forward to it immensely. It’s a tough call. It will be very, very close but I predict New Zealand will steal it. 24-18 to the All Blacks.
They’re going back to Eden Park which is a fortress for New Zealand rugby so it’s going to be a humdinger. Fireworks, what an atmosphere. I’d love to be down there, wearing the red and shouting for the Lions.