RAK Rugby is the official new name of Ras Al Khaimah’s rugby team – drawing to an end a long-running saga over what to call the UAE’s most northerly-based club.
Rugby has been played in the region since 1969, and the first name that adorned the club jersey was ‘Goats’. That has caused issues over the years, and when the club debuted in the inaugural Community League three years ago, they were forced to change their name to ‘Rocks’ by the UAE Rugby Federation.
Officially they did, although they still continued to go by the original name, but chairman Simon Williams says the new ‘Rugby’ moniker is more encompassing and is here to stay.
“We’ve been very busy since the end of season and over the summer with a number of changes underway,” said Williams.
“First is the name changing from the RAK Goats to RAK Rugby. We had some potential issues with the name and at first glance it didn’t really tell anyone who we were and what we did, unless you were already involved in UAE rugby.
“At the same time, we were developing the club with a mini and youth section, an Under-19 Emirati team and we hope a women’s sevens team.
“The name therefore didn’t really reflect the diversity of our membership, or help with recruiting sponsors or growing the club locally, so for all these reasons we have decided to change it to RAK Rugby.
“It’s simple, clear and effective and still allows us to have nicknames for the various teams that fall under the RAK Rugby banner.”
The relationship between rugby and Ras Al Khaimah has been as rich as the oil that feeds the UAE, with the game played in the northern region in some guise since the first expatriate oil and port workers arrived 50 years ago.
RAK Goats were officially established in 1981, named after the indigenous goats that were found in the local Hajar Mountains.
The latest reincarnation of rugby in RAK saw the club re-established in 2013 after a seven-year absence by a group of enthusiasts disillusioned with travelling to the nearest club in Sharjah to play. The team turned up to the Sharjah 10s, borrowed some playing kit and ended up winning the Plate final.
In 2015/16 the club lost every single one of their inaugural Community League encounters, but better was to come last term as they finished a respectable fourth, while their nomadic existence was rectified somewhat when they found a home at their iconic sand pitch, built on the beach at the Bin Majid Resort.
They even won the Fair Play Team award at the UAE RF end of season awards, as well as attracting local and international interest and new sponsors.
“There are now big plans in place for RAK Rugby going forward,” added Williams.
“We’ve teamed up with Tower Links Golf Club to use their facility for floodlit grass training and we have showers now rather than a dip in the sea.
“We’ve also become associated with Barjeel health club for some pre-season strength and conditioning training and have three coaches to work on our game, two of which are specialised coaches.
“There are other plans afoot but these are still in the formation phase at present, but pre-season has started and we are actively recruiting new players and can’t wait to play the Arabian Knights on September 29.
“We will be having a trials session at the golf club on September 8 involving several local organisations and a barbecue and disco afterwards at Tower Links. Anyone is welcome to come along.”
Mike McFarlane has described Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ astounding 2016/17 campaign as a “freak” and insists his side have no right to believe another quintuple of trophies is likely.
Quins marched to an unprecedented season of success – winning the UAE’s three major honours of UAE Premiership, West Asia Premiership and Dubai Sevens titles.
McFarlane’s men also lifted the Western Clubs Champions League crown in pre-season as well as the West Asia Cup to complete a clean sweep of honours.
But he said there will be no sense of complacency from the Zayed Sports City outfit.
“Obviously everyone is talking about last year. It was a freak year,” said McFarlane.
“In competitions featuring such strong sides, to capture every trophy was phenomenal. But that’s done. That gives us no right to under prepare or think we have a right to turn up and get wins.
“Only hard work on and off the paddock will ensure we start the season well and can build with every game.”
McFarlane, a teacher at the British School Al Khubairat, is enjoying his summer holidays, currently at home in the UK, but his players have been putting the hard yards in during pre-season away from his watchful eye.
And even with many players throughout the club also away enjoying their summers, McFarlane revealed he is still able to keep track of their progress.
“We’ve followed up our phased preseason from last year with a few tweaks from what we learnt,” he added.
“Numbers have been fantastic since we started and players have had access to five-six sessions a week which have taken them through strength training at the world class facilities of Vogue and conditioning sessions both on and off the pitch at Zayed Sports City and Haddins.
“Players away with work or on holiday have programmes to follow and all their data goes onto a live document which the coaches can track.
“The new lads coming in have shown a great attitude and know there’s no complacency and everybody fights for a shirt. It’s that atmosphere and ethos which creates such competitiveness yet closeness throughout all Quins squads.”
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.”