When you think of rugby in Abu Dhabi, Harlequins and Saracens immediately spring to mind. Not too many people will have heard of a club called Abu Dhabi French.
Ecole Francaise de Rugby Abu Dhabi as it is known in French though was formed more than a decade ago – actually making the club older than Saracens, which was only established in 2011.
Abu Dhabi French was created by 15 pupils at Lycee Louis Massignon, one of two French language schools in the UAE capital, in 2004. The youngsters would gather to play rugby and soon Ecole Francaise de Rugby Abu Dhabi was born.
Membership grew steadily, to 25 in the 2005/2006 season and 65 the season after.
Although existing in the shadows of Harlequins and Saracens is not exactly ideal for growth, today the club has a thriving membership of over 200 players in age groups all the way from infants to Under-19s, and despite its relatively low-key stature, has grand plans to grow much bigger.
The club’s triumph in the Bowl competition of the U-16 B section at the HSBC Rugby Festival Dubai last month was yet another small step for the development of the club.
“It’s huge for our club,” said Abu Dhabi French chairman, Fabien Roveda.
“For us it’s a really good experience. For our U-16’s it was the first time they have played this season because earlier in the season there was not enough of them to play.
“It was their first tournament so it’s a great result. They enjoyed it and so did I.
“It was the first ever tournament win for the U-16s but at the beginning of the season our U-13s and U-10s won at the Harlequins Junior Rugby Tournament. We also had two small titles in Al Ain so our reputation is growing.”
To fulfil that ambition of growth, the club seems to be in safe hands with chairman and coach Roveda, rugby-mad since the age of five.
He played to a fairly high standard in his native France with Nancy Seichamps in the French first division and grew up in the small south-western French village of Clairac, where he played rugby with a certain Phillipe Sella, who sits second on the all-time appearance list for Les Bleus with 111 caps.
Roveda, 43, moved to Abu Dhabi two years ago and became involved with the club within a month of
“We have not a lot. We have a website, 150 followers on Facebook and we hope to have a Twitter page soon but it is a club that is growing,” he added.
“We are changing our rules inside the club and trying to become bigger. If we can have more people the job will be easier. The mind of the French people though is not like the English, for example, they don’t have the same experiences between family and rugby.
“I hope we get through the problems we have here in Abu Dhabi, such as expats coming and going, and we can go higher.
“We have stayed at 200 people for the last three or four years and I hope we will go to 300 or 400.
“The community of French people in Abu Dhabi is perhaps not enough or big enough to have that but we will see.”
Having been created by a small group of secondary school pupils and existing largely as a youth rugby club somewhat limits their exposure in a country where domestic rugby is dominated by senior tournaments like the UAE Premiership, West Asia Championship and Dubai Rugby Sevens and the region’s senior teams like
Saracens, Quins and Dubai giants Exiles, Hurricanes, Wasps and Jebel Ali Dragons. But Roveda says there are plans to enter the vets section of the Dubai Sevens this year.
“We would like to get the club on a par with Harlequins and Saracens, sure, and we are trying,” he said.
“We will try next year to have a vets team at the sevens, we will try and find some players but most of them are young.”
Another problem is that players have in the past left to join Quins, a superpower in terms of player base and prestige in the capital.
“We have had players in the last two or three years choose to go to Harlequins because of the size of the club – Quins and Saracens are bigger than us,” said Roveda.
“We have that problem, it’s normal, we see the same thing in France.
“When we have a good player he goes to a bigger club, not only to win, but to have a better place in the game.
“I understand that but I hope that with the evolution of the club we will have back our players because they are good. Also, if they play with Quins, it means we gave them good training.
“It’s been a problem in the past but we hope that will change and I will do my best to arrange that. We are trying to modify our rules and modify the club to put it in the best condition possible. Allez Les Bleus. We are alive and we will do our best to remain so.”
Jebel Ali Dragons are another team who will feel they can throw their hat in the ring for West Asian honours after they put Muscat to the sword with an 18-try blitz.
Following two weeks of relative stability for the men from Oman, Dragons torched them with a 110- 10 win at Dubai Sports City, which gives them two wins from three and puts them firmly in the title picture. Shaun McCartney led the way for Dragons with six tries, while UAE international Niall Statham waded in with five.
There was also a brace for Murray Strang and one each for Ben Blamire, Ross Samson, Sam Ewing, Emerson Bessell and Zander van der Westhuizen.
“We moved the ball nicely at times so although the game got ragged we worked our set piece well and some of our phase play looked slick,” said Statham. “To their credit they are a really committed team and scored two nice tries.”
Dragons face Abu Dhabi Harlequins next week in a rearranged fixture from the opening day.
“The table is blown wide open now so we’re just concentrating on ourselves now and enjoying the game,” added Statham. “We’ll go there and try to move the ball like we did in the sevens and today and anything can happen. Hopefully we can build on the confidence and take a full side next week.”
Muscat managed to fulfil the fixture despite travelling with the bare bones.
“We had 10 guys out injured and two with prior commitments so we travelled with 14,” said vice captain Karl Rasmussen. “Luckily one of our old players who moved here in November was willing to play, despite having competed in a half ironman earlier in the day.”
James Ham feels a 25-16 win against Bahrain could be the turning point in Dubai Hurricanes’ season.
Canes ambled through the UAE Premiership before going on to win the second-tier Plate competition at the Dubai Rugby Sevens, and head coach Ham stressed how their second win of the West Asia Championship campaign must be used as a platform.
“It’s massive for our season. A huge step. It’s what we wanted and with the performances, it’s been coming,” said Ham, who had seen his side battle valiantly to a 47-36 loss at Doha last week. “It could be the turning point for us, it certainly feels like that. Last week was tough against Doha, this week we were stronger again, and now there’s a buzz about the place.”
Daryl Johnson, Jamie Williams, Lindsay Fitzgerald and Darragh Duggan scored tries for Canes at The Sevens as they grabbed a bonus point and made it two wins from three games to put themselves firmly in the mix for the title.
“We got a bonus point and nothing for them which might matter at the end of the season,” added Ham, who was also happy to get one over younger brother Tom who is Bahrain’s player-coach.
“Mum was after a draw but they turned us over at the (Dubai Rugby) Sevens so that’s 1-1 for the season,” he added. Ham junior was frustrated with his side and believes they are good enough to be in contention for the championship.
“We’re disappointed. We definitely thought we could get a result here so it’s disappointing not to,” he said. “We’re building and I still don’t think we’ve learnt to win tight or win ugly. We’ve got to get in that winning mindset.
“With the strong teams competing now we know we’re good enough, so it’s got to be better. There’s a great atmosphere in the dressing room this year. We know we’ve got a strong squad, which is a big thing, it makes a big difference, and we’re keen to build that and keep going forward.”