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.”
Qais Al Dhalai has announced he is running for the Asia Rugby presidency, admitting he feels it is a “natural progression” having served as the governing body’s secretary general since December 2015.
Making the game more of a level playing field and shining a spotlight on the smaller Asian nations is one of Al Dhalai’s major goals as he
launched his bid on Wednesday to replace Japan’s Koji Tokumasu, who has announced he will not be running for another two-year term.
Al Dhalai also hopes to continue the good work of World Rugby’s Asia One Million programme – an idea he launched – that aims to get one million people on the continent involved in rugby by the time Japan hosts the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“The current president has already said he will not stand again and, to be honest, I think Asia Rugby needs some new blood to drive the
Organisation forwrd,” Al Dhalai, also the UAE Rugby Federation secretary general, told Sport360.
“I feel it is a natural step for me to take. I have been through the ranks. In 2013 I was elected as a committee member. That was until December 2015, then I was elected as a secretary general. It is always a term that is for two years so that ends in November.
“I sit on the World Cup 2019 steering committee with Brett Gosper (World Rugby CEO) and others. I’m already at that level so I thought this was a natural progression.”
Al Dhalai was applauded by Gosper in 2015 for his role in developing rugby in the UAE and beyond. Just last year he travelled to Palestine to help establish the game there, and it is the smaller countries that have perhaps never played the game before or been marginalised that Al Dhalai hopes to help the most.
“Thailand, Bangladesh, Guam, Macau, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Jordan. They all deserve more exposure,” added Al Dhalai.
“In August 2016 I visited Palestine. It was the first time they had played rugby. I’m working with the Vietnam National Olympic Committee to establish a national governing body.
“And also in Cambodia. It used to be an Asia Rugby member but it was expelled two years ago. I’m working with them to get them back, I’m going to the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur to meet them and explore opportunities.
“One of the strategic pillars I’m pursuing is to add more member nations to the Asia Rugby family. We currently stand at 30. The Asian Football Confederation has 45. Our strategic objective in Asia Rugby is to reach 36 by the time the World Cup is held in 2019.
“I’m working with Vietnam, Iraq, Palestine, Cambodia. I wish to help the smaller unions or countries who don’t have a national governing body, to establish one.
“My idea is to spread out the game. It’s not healthy just to have the big nations playing like Japan and Hong Kong.”
Al Dhalai said he was not aware of any possible opponents he might be running against. The election will take place on November 19 in Hong Kong.
If he were to get elected, Al Dhalai could still remain in post with the UAE RF.
Al Dhalai said he had been encouraged to launch his bid by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and ruler of Dubai.
“Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid is always encouraging the Emiratis to be leaders in our fields and to be number one. One of my drivers is to follow what our leaders are encouraging us to do,” added Al Dhalai.
“I have decided to run because I am sure I can bring change and dreams to reality for Asia Rugby. A lot of member unions are struggling in terms of financial sustainability, participation and development.
“One of my top priorities is to continue the success of Asia One Million. Asia One Million, which has received backing from World Rugby, launched it in 2015. It aims to increase participation in the region by one million, whether that’s players, referees or administrators.
“The first year ended a month ago and it has been very successful – we have 3000,000 new participants and the aim is by the World Cup in 2019 we will have one million.
“Second is to source sponsorship for Asia Rugby. We don’t have one so that’s one of my top priorities which will help the member unions to have a chance to play.
“It’s my vision and I think the region will flourish because of it. I have good faith and intention. The ultimate goal is to have an evolutionary vision for Asia Rugby in this crucial time.”
Ed Lewsey admits some pre-conceived, negative thoughts about the Middle East crept into his mind before he moved to the UAE.
Now, after six years in the desert, the 38-year-old has returned home with nothing but a head full of happy memories and lifelong friends to keep in touch with.
Lewsey, younger brother of former England international Josh, 40, came to the Emirates in 2011 after his own impressive playing career – he counts Exeter Chiefs among his former teams – was winding down due to injury.
Or so he thought. Then 32, he was quickly introduced to Abu Dhabi Harlequins after arriving in the capital. He went to training and his troublesome Achilles heel injury held up so he put his boots back on.
Fast forward to 2017 and Lewsey, who was head of rugby at the British School Al Khubairat, is now heading to take up a place as director of rugby at King’s College, Taunton.
And even though older brother Josh can count a Rugby World Cup winners’ medal as well as 55 England caps and three British & Irish Lions appearances under his belt – Ed has also enjoyed a bit of international stardom having won seven caps for the UAE.
“I’ve had a great six years, it’s been an adventure,” said Lewsey, who admits he grew up dreaming of playing scrum-half for Wales but claims he’ll happily settle turning out at nine for the UAE.
“I’ve made some great friends through work, rugby and socially and had some amazing experiences with school and rugby travelling abroad. It’s a great place to live as you’re three or four hours from a lot of places. It’s been wonderful and I’ll look back with great memories of this time.
“I came out here with my rugby days, my professional career coming to an end back home. It was a bit of a bonus to play rugby as I initially hadn’t intended on doing it. But I really missed the game and the social side, being part of a community.
“I was drawn down to the rugby club and it’s something I’ve done all my life so I very much felt at home.
To have played the last five or six years has been a real bonus, and especially playing for the UAE the last three years.
“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to represent this country and travel to places like Uzbekistan and Malaysia, and I’m very thankful for those opportunities. Now it’s time to say goodbye.”
As well as Exeter, Lewsey played for Plymouth Albion as well as a final injury-ravaged season in the UK with Lawnston. What he thought was the end of his playing days coincided with a teaching post in the UAE.
Lewsey, thinking it was time for a change, decided to take the plunge and admits he has no regrets – except for perhaps thinking it would be a good idea to go out for a stroll when he first arrived in the blistering August summer heat.
“I moved out into the brutal heat, which was quite a shock,” he said.
“I remember in my early days thinking it would be a good idea to walk to the fish market down by the port. It was three miles from my house so thought that was a good idea in 48 degree heat. You soon learn it’s different living out here.”
Aside from the 3,000 mile separating the UAE and UK, there are also contrasting cultural, religious and ethnic differences between the two countries. But Lewsey found out himself that many fears are unfounded.
He added: “A lot of westerners have these pre-conceived ideas when they come out here about what it’s going to be like. You hear about the laws and think it’s going to be quite strict. Then you find a rugby club and it’s a lot different from what you expect.
“The lifestyle we have, especially as teachers, is unattainable at home. Things you wouldn’t be able to do as easily or regularly.”
Ali Thompson, a former UAE captain, became a colleague at BSAK, and he was the one who introduced him to Quins and many of his friends who remain to this day, including Mike Ballard, the American who was left in a wheelchair when injured in Quins’ West Asia Cup final defeat to Jebel Ali Dragons in April 2014.
“Originally it was Ali, who’s been a big part of Abu Dhabi rugby (who introduced me),” said Lewsey, who revealed that the close and caring Quins community instantly made him feel at home and left him feeling the true strength of rugby’s worldwide familial and friendly reputation.
“We’ve been good friends for a long time at school and have worked together with the first team at BSAK. He was the one who got me down at Quins to training. My Achilles felt ok and then once you’re back into it the rugby gets faster but the ethos remains the same.
“I remember the first game was a pre-season tournament in Jebel Ali. Playing in September was a shock with the weather. It was great fun though and I remember playing with guys who I’m still friends with today. Ali, Patrick Heggarty, Mike, we met in our first week.
“We met the first night and we’ve had a really strong friendship ever since. I remember coming back on the bus and all the team; firsts, seconds, vets and ladies all singing songs and I knew I’d found a home from home.
“I remember being in the team that won it (the Dubai Sevens) for the first time in ages. The Sevens is a lot of fun. It’s the big event out here and just to be part of that, playing on the main pitch, is a great experience.
“I’ve won and lost a few times. It’s an electric weekend whether you win or lose or whether you’re playing or not. Winning games is great but we were all part of the same community whatever club you played for.
“We were all amateur players playing for fun for the enjoyment and camaraderie of rugby. It’s nice that that exists worldwide.”
Josh may be the sibling most people remember and recognize, but Ed admits the fact he can also call himself an international is a constant source of entertainment among the three Lewsey brothers – including eldest sibling Tom, who lives in Sydney.
A few Christmases ago, Lewsey revealed he asked him mum to frame his UAE jersey for him as a present, which she thought initially was a joke.
“There is some banter in the family with that,” he added.
“I asked mum, for a Christmas present, if she could get my UAE jersey framed. Initially I think she thought it was a joke. Within the family we also wind up my older brother who lives in Sydney as he’s the only non-capped sibling in the family.
“It proves you never know what might happen in life. We’re living away from home and you have to make the most of the opportunities, try things, get out there and experience things.