Abu Dhabi Saracens are on the search for a new home, but they will not find it at the revamped Sheikh Zayed Stadium – at least not for now.
Sarries, already rocked by the departure of a host of stars at the start of the summer, were dealt another bombshell last week when Al Ghazal Golf Club was shut – casting uncertainty on whether they will be able to keep playing their home matches at the rugby pitch located adjacent to the club in the shadow of Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Sheikh Zayed Stadium – home of the UAE cricket team and Pakistan since 2010 – is undergoing renovation to make it more accessible to more sports in the capital. This has seen work begin on laying two FIFA-standard full-size football pitches which will be used for teams to train at Decembers’ Club World Cup – at which Real Madrid will compete.
Touch is already played on the academy cricket ovals, and the facility’s administrators say the long-term goal of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council-run revamp is to allow more sports to be hosted at the venue, including football, athletics and possibly even rugby.
John Larkins, who runs UAE Touch and whose roots are embedded in rugby, is working alongside Abu Dhabi Cricket and the Abu Dhabi Sports Council. And he says all concerned parties will try to do everything they can to help Sarries, although he has ruled out the venue hosting their games – at least in the early part of the season.
“We’ll definitely be able to help them out with the pre-season stuff. We’ll help them out with all of the junior stuff and women’s rugby too,” said Larkins who sat down with Sarries director of rugby Stephen Hamilton earlier this week to discuss a way forward.
“From our perspective it makes it really difficult to have the guys out there scrummaging on an international cricket pitch so I’m not sure what we’ll do. But juniors we will definitely look to accommodate
“Short term we’re committed to helping them out as much as we can from August 14. We’ve given them rates for pre-season which is nothing they’ll be able to get across Abu Dhabi. They’ll come in for the seniors, women’s and juniors.
“We’ll do our best, everything we can so that they can continue to operate and provide rugby in the capital which I think is a good thing.
“But there’ll definitely, 100 per cent, be no full-contact rugby games on the cricket ovals.”
Sarries held last Wednesday’s pre-season training sessions at the Al Forsan International Sports Resort in Khalifa City A but that doesn’t appear to be a long-term option, while cross-city rivals Abu Dhabi Harlequins are already contemplating their future at Zayed Sports City, with pitch hire across the UAE continuing to rocket.
Costs at ZSC exceeded Dh700,000 for Quins last season and Larkins explained that is one of the major reasons why developing Sheikh Zayed Stadium is being undertaken.
“What we’re trying to do is give people access to sport and facilities at a more cost-effective rate as is other than traditional,” said the New Zealander.
“We’re also try to extend the life of the pitch so more people get to use it. We will be using the cricket ovals to run different multiple sports, as many sports as we can.
“We’ve got three cricket ovals, the two nursery ovals outside which will have full lighting from September 1 so we can get night-time cricket. We won’t be playing senior rugby or football on those or on the stadium ground. They will be accessible to social sport as long as footwear is appropriate.”
Larkins revealed that when work on the two football pitches are complete – around the end of September or beginning of October – they would be open to discussions with the city’s rugby clubs.
“Potentially this will allow us to look at someone like Saracens or Quins coming in to utilise the pitch at times,” added Larkins.
“A lot will depend on wear and tear. It’s an Abu Dhabi Sports Council initiative so its community based. What we want to do is give as many people as much access as possible to the facilities.
“We’re a little bit uncertain at the moment how long it will take the pitch to recuperate after, say 30 guys have been on it playing rugby.
“Let’s wait and see. We’ll have a few football games in October just to see how the pitch comes up. Potentially we’ll have a social sevens game around that time too. If it’s ok and we’re able to manage some more games on it, then we will.
“What we won’t do is sacrifice one pitch that will potentially have 2-300 people on it a week for three-four hours a night just so the boys can play rugby. There’s a big difference between that and social and kids activity.”
He suggested that more pitches could even be built specifically for rugby, adding: “I’m meeting with Steve in the hope of possibly building two or three more pitches that could be specific to rugby. They’d obviously need some assistance to rent that out.
“They had a pretty killer deal up at Al Ghazal based on bar takings. That’s not something we’d be interested in.”