The possibility of Doha being allowed to compete in the West Asia Premiership next season has been met with mixed reactions among the UAE rugby community.
A number of Gulf countries, including the UAE, severed ties with Qatar last month. And Doha were subsequently a notable omission from the new 2017/18 fixtures calendar which was released by the UAE Rugby Federation on July 1.
The newly-formed Dubai Eagles have been granted entry to both the cross-border West Asia competition as well as the UAE Premiership – the premier club rugby competitions in the Gulf and Emirates respectively – next season in place of Doha.
But it has now emerged that rugby authorities in the Middle East are considering arranging matches involving Alex Natera’s side on neutral territory in Muscat, as they attempt to manage the fallout of the Qatar boycott.
Doha’s existence next season would undoubtedly maintain an edge to matches as well as add to the standard of play – Natera’s men finished runners-up to Abu Dhabi Harlequins in 2016/17 – while two extra games for teams would surely be of great benefit to Apollo Perelini’s UAE for next year’s Asia Rugby Championship campaign.
Yet the cost of travelling to Doha, at a time when many UAE clubs are struggling with finances, is a concern, while some clubs feel it would extend an already swollen fixture list.
“I am 100 per cent behind it,” said Dubai Exiles chairman Mike Wolff.
“It is absolutely beneficial to have them in it although any match in Muscat would have to be a double header, for example, worth double points. We can’t afford to travel twice to Muscat and once to Bahrain unless of course the UAE RF and Asia Rugby do the right thing and assist with costs.”
Quins chairman Andy Cole cautiously welcomed the possibility, while also listing benefits for Doha not being allowed to compete.
“It would be beneficial in that they are a strong team, but cost prohibitive for most clubs,” said Cole.
“It would be a shame (for them not to feature) as they were the closest team in overall performance last season and we know they are recruiting for next season.
“However, we also know they have semi-pro players who are paid so it may make things more of a level playing field for the other teams if they cannot compete.
“This is obviously something the clubs have no say in and we will of course await and respect the decision of the UAE RF and Asia Rugby.”
Dubai Hurricanes counterpart Simon Lewis is also skeptical of the recent development, fearing a congested fixture list.
“Should not the question be on the benefits of the UAE RF decision to allow the Eagles into the Premiership, given it was made on the basis of Doha not participating?
“The season is already having challenges with its schedule running into mid-April when it’s too hot play – that’s without Doha rejoining.”
Rugby in the UAE has undergone a meteoric rise over the last few years.
After the successful debut of the all-Emirati ladies team at the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens last December, the standard of the game has risen beyond recognition.
The team recently made history when they competed in the Paris World Games – an experience that will certainly work wonders for the growth of the game in the UAE.
Apollo Perelini is one of the men whose relentless leadership can inspire more Emirati girls to take up rugby in the UAE.
Speaking to Sport360 earlier this month, Perelini said having these international tournaments available for the team can only encourage more female Emiratis to get involved in the sport.
He said: “If we can continue to give these types of opportunities to Emirati girls and enable them to travel to these tournaments and have these types of experiences, more and more girls are going to want to play rugby and pursue the chance to play for the UAE and represent their country.”
While on the field rugby in the UAE is standing tall, the game is seemingly being brought to its knees off it – yet Jebel Ali Dragons are refreshingly bucking the recent depressing trend.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins announced earlier this month that the loss of backing from sponsors Etihad Airways leaves them facing a Dh5000,000 shortfall ahead of the new season. The exciting emergence of Dubai Sports City-based Dubai Eagles nevertheless leaves Arabian Knights and Dubai Sharks searching for a new home. And Dubai Wasps are on the cusp of folding due to financial and recruitment struggles.
Yet on the outskirts of Dubai, Dragons are approaching the new season with optimism. Not just because of a resurgence on the field under Henry Paul last season. But also because they are in rude health behind the scenes too.
Dragons announced on Monday that head sponsor Hesco, providers of military-defence barriers, have signed a five-year, seven figure sponsorship deal with the club.
Southern hemisphere rugby-themed restaurant Nezeaussie Grill have also come on board as a new sponsor for 2017/18 while Ro3 and First Resort Global Recruitment continue their support too.
“We are happy that we have managed to secure long term sponsors in an environment that seems to be quite desperate,” said Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn.
“Allowing us to continue to supply a great rugby product, world class coaching, superb facilities and all the other things that traditionally occur in rugby clubs is only good for rugby in the region.
“It’s great that we are secure but it’s incredibly sad to hear that some clubs are struggling, it’s helping no-one having clubs threaten to close.”
Whereas the emergence of Eagles this summer means several clubs in Dubai fear approaches for their players with the likes of free gym membership at DSC, Quinn says Dragons have retained most of their players.
“I think it comes down to smart decision making in the areas that are costing clubs and a very loyal player base,” he said.
“We have not committed to a mini and youth set-up which takes a lot of pressure off volunteers and cash flow so we can concentrate on other revenue streams. These clubs are businesses now, we have to treat them as such.”
JA Resorts and Hotels hold the naming rights to Dragons and for that the club receives facility support from them which they are looking to grow now that they have just added plush new 4G pitches and a new clubhouse for players and supporters to enjoy after games.
Quinn added: “JACOE have laid a new 4G pitch and a wonderful new grass pitch with state of the art floodlights along with a new clubhouse to call home is nothing short of fantastic. We are committed to helping them recoup that investment with contributions to F&B on match days.
“Uncertainty is never something a sponsor wants to hear. The relationship that we have fostered with JA Resorts has undoubtedly led us to where we are today. That decision to move away from the previous situation is paying dividends now.
“Having a head sponsor like Hesco so involved in the club on a day to day level has only strengthened that. Staying true to being an amateur club with big ambitions has been key.”