The standard of rugby being played in the UAE today is improving at an exponential rate. Yet the disparity between where the game is headed on the field and off it couldn’t be more stark.
On it, the game is probably more fast, more furious, more entertaining, more star-studded than it ever has been. Super Rugby it obviously is not, yet it is home to players like ex-Italy A fly-half Durandt Gerber, who was in the Azzurri’s 2011 Rugby World Cup training squad.
Sean Carey, a former Ireland Under-19 international, played for Dubai Hurricanes and Exiles and made his international bow for the UAE earlier this year. Doha lost explosive Kiwi winger Luke Masirewa during the course of last season, recalled back to the New Zealand sevens set-up due to his blistering form in the Gulf.
That’s without mentioning the likes of Henry Paul, Denis Hurley and Apollo Perelini who are all coaching out here now.
The UAE have risen to Asia Rugby’s second tier under former dual code star Perelini’s guidance and stand 72nd in the world – their highest ranking since forming their own union in 2011.
Yet all is not well.
Dubai Wasps, a staple part of the domestic rugby scene in the UAE since 2010, were forced to fold this month. Finally swatted by insurmountable debt.
In truth, they had been on the precipice for a few years, not much having gone Wasps’ way since their relegation from rugby’s top tier UAE Premiership in 2014/15.
Yet, this is far from an epidemic confined simply to the smallest and weakest. Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ struggles this summer show that not even the biggest and strongest clubs are immune.
Quins won an unprecedented five trophies last season, yet that didn’t prevent them from losing Dh500,000 in sponsorship deals, with the severing of ties with Etihad also putting their renowned annual youth tournament in doubt.
The sad truth of the matter is that while the game is getting richer on the field, rising costs for pitch hire and the generally unfavourable economic environment the country finds itself engulfed in, is seeing it plummet new, worrying depths off it.
Jebel Ali Dragons announced last month that head sponsor Hesco, providers of military-defence barriers, had signed a new five-year, seven figure sponsorship deal with the club.
Yet, even if clubs are lucky enough to find a benevolent sponsor, Quins’ troubles prove everything is not quite right behind the scenes – which is worrying if you’re one of the smaller clubs.
“What I can say is that the lack of funds (either from sponsorships or federation funding) is felt and is hurting everyone,” said Al Ain Amblers director of rugby, Rocco De Bruyn.
“The majority of Al Ain expats are working in the government sector and, without big companies based here, it is difficult to secure sponsorships.
“If we look at the big clubs and how they are struggling to secure sponsorship to increase their funds, you can imagine how the smaller clubs in smaller towns and cities suffer. We are certainly finding it harder to budget every year – food costs, transport, kit, equipment etc are constantly increasing while income via sponsorship is decreasing.
“I do foresee more clubs struggling and eventually either amalgamating or just closing down, which will be detrimental to the development of rugby in the UAE.”
Although the money coming in through sponsorships and income continue to dwindle, costs are nevertheless spiraling dangerously out of control.
Quins’ travel expenses exceeded Dh100,000 last season. They also paid out an Dh773,000 for 1,104 hours of use of the pitch at their Zayed Sports City home.
Talk to clubs about the costs per match day hosted and it’s frightening how much expense is incurred – especially for many operating on shoe string budgets
To hire a football or rugby pitch at The Sevens – where a plethora of Dubai teams play – costs Dh1,920 for a one-off 90 minute booking.
They offer negotiable, reduced rates should you wish to book regular slots. Costs for rugby teams who play at weekends were Dh1,500 last season for two hours and each booking is inclusive of 10 cases of water.
Water is not included at Abu Dhabi’s premier sporting facility, Zayed Sports City, where football pitches are available at Dh750 per one-hour session.
Sharjah Wanderers are in a unique position in that they don’t have to pay pitch fees at their Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club ground. Yet chairman Shane Breen concedes even they would be lost without sponsors.
“At Sharjah we don’t pay pitch fees and the club have an arrangement with water suppliers so that’s covered too,” said Breen.
“Post-game drinks are covered by our A&E sponsorship, so we just pay for player meals which are about Dh45 per person. Usually there are 50 meals post game (Dh2,250). Quite a few clubs are doing away with post-game meals for the opposition which is a sign of the tough times.
“Sharjah are one of very few clubs in the region who don’t pay for pitch hire but even we wouldn’t be able to operate without the support of our sponsors. It’s definitely something that needs to be looked into.
“Rugby in the UAE is still in a strong place but more help from the union could be needed in the future should things get any worse.”
Arabian Knights head coach John Taimana revealed the club forks out, on average, almost Dh5,000 just to host a fixture for its first team.
He said: “Pitch hire on average costs Dh1,500dhs for two hours, medical supplies are Dh300 per match, minimum, water for both teams is Dh120 minimum, ice for post-match beverages and water is Dh60, while the beverages themselves (based at Dh36 per team of 25 players) would mean us buying three cases per match – at a cost of Dh2,700.”
All that adds up to a staggering Dh4,680 – £989. Even more astounding is that Knights – like many clubs in the UAE – have more than one senior team. So double all those numbers for two and three teams, and a club is looking at an outlay close to Dh10-15,000 so two or three of their teams can play rugby each week.
When you factor in travel time, as is essential when playing at the top level, you’re talking infinitely more.
Dragons treasurer Ben Pryor provided us with a detailed list of costs for home and away games, as well as away fixtures in the West Asia Premiership that involve air travel to Bahrain or Doha.
“For a home game, pitch costs don’t affect us like they do other clubs as our head sponsor JA Resorts owns our ground so this is part of our naming agreement (but upwards of Dh300,000 per year is the value of the amount of times Dragons’ three teams use their facility),” he said.
“Per game water is Dh500, food after the game is Dh2,100, beverages are Dh2,000 and paying for a physio or medic is Dh600 – so total Dh5,200 per team, per match.”
Bus travel for away games is around Dh1,600, says Pryor, but the real accountancy skills come when working out the costs for flights.
“Flights and visas – depending on the time of year – are between Dh16,500 and 21,000. Excluding flights, match costs alone can – depending on fixtures – climb well into six figures for the season,” added Pryor.
Of course, budgets are bigger at bigger clubs. But the sums involved are still eye-watering and cast doubts on how sustainable it all is for the future of the game in the Gulf.
For Bahrain and Doha, costs are significantly more still as both teams travelled to the UAE five times for WAP fixtures last season.
Doha club manager Lauren Tremayne said: “Obviously our costs are probably higher than the UAE teams as we have to travel further, this can be noted in the 128,000 Qatari Rial (Dh129,132) we spent on flights for the senior men’s team alone last year.
“The total travel costs for all teams at the club last year was QR346,000 (Dh349,000). This figure is the actual cost to club. Including the players’ contribution (membership fees) the total costs are around QR140,000 for the senior men and a total of QR524,000.”
Flights to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain are also steadily on the rise. One-off costs for the first team were QR12,500 (Dubai), QR16,500 (Bahrain) and QR30,000 (Abu Dhabi) in the 2014/15 season.
Last year they had risen to QR16,250 (Dubai), QR18,000 (Bahrain) and QR39,250 (Abu Dhabi).
Clubs have cried out for help from the powers that be. Craig Gibson, former chairman of now defunct Wasps, believes things started to go bad for clubs playing at The Sevens when the UAE Rugby Federation stopped subsidising pitch hire.
“Costs of running a rugby club have always been prohibitive, and when UAE RF stopped subsidising rugby pitch hire on game days a few years ago, it had a large impact on clubs,” said Gibson.
“Unfortunately, as is the result of sporting evolution, the depth of a new club’s pockets might mean Dubai Wasps are not the last rugby club in the UAE to fold.”
Yet the UAE RF feels that it is best placed maintaining its neutral standpoint. “When the agreement expired (involving subsidising pitch hire) that subsidising element was terminated except for the UAE representative teams at The Sevens,” said UAE RF secretary general Qais Al Dhalai, who is running for the Asia Rugby presidency in November.
“It was a special case a long time ago for Dubai-based clubs. That contract ended in 2014 and when it ended we thought as a national governing body we needed to be very neutral. Why should be subsidise a few clubs in Dubai at The Sevens when we cannot do the same at Dubai Sports City or in Abu Dhabi. We need to be very careful. We need to be neutral to all clubs.
“Each national governing body has the right to charge clubs playing in the league. But we decided a long time ago not to charge clubs an annual subscription fee.
“We are part of World and Asia Rugby and we pay a membership fee. But, to help the clubs, we say clubs who play in the UAE do not have to pay a membership fee. That is our way of assisting them. We are trying our best.
“There are many ways we try to help them. Not a direct financial aid, but we are contributing a lot.”