Dubai Rugby Sevens: A look back as Middle East's oldest sporting event turns 50

Matt Jones - Editor 18:16 25/11/2019
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  • New Zealand are the reigning Dubai Rugby Sevens champions as well as being joint record six-time winners.

    South America. The Middle East. Europe. Asia. It doesn’t really matter where in the world rugby is played – or on what surface – one theme has always remained core to a game which originated in England in the first half of the 19th Century: Community.

    It is something that has and is always central to any club, game or tournament. From the human corridors formed by players at the final whistle when they clap opponents off the pitch, to the very visible impact money from governing bodies has on clubs in towns and villages when trickled down – rugby is all about its roots and bringing people together.

    That is visible at any level of the game, even at the very top. Sure, rugby has its superstars, but even the most elite players seem more humble and down to earth than your average footballer.

    There’s something quite surreal and rib-tickling about seeing bearded giant 6ft 9in South African lock RG Snyman having to address the referee as “Sir” and apologise for infringing at a ruck – a man who could quite easily be the villain in a slasher movie about hillbillies. The sight of former Springbok skipper Francois Pienaar accepting the Webb Ellis Trophy from Nelson Mandela – South Africa’s first black head of state – after the 1995 final at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park is one of sport’s most iconic images.

    The recently concluded Rugby World Cup in Japan saw the showpiece leave the rugby heartlands of Europe and New Zealand, Australia and South Africa for the first time – with Asia welcomed with open arms.

    Even the title of the official World Cup song – World in Union – is entwined with inclusiveness.

    Dubai Hurricanes won the Gulf Men's League title at the Dubai Sevens last year - triumphing for the first time in 11 years.

    Dubai Hurricanes won the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens last year – triumphing for the first time in 11 years.

    And in the Middle East – surrounded by sand and thousands of miles from where many living here call home – numerous nations are represented on the rugby fields of the UAE, where the game has thrived for half a century thanks to the countless flow of expatriates.

    For any new arrival in the Emirates today, their local rugby club is often the first port of call. Whether you want to play or just need help settling into alien surroundings, clubs are great conduits for launching your new life.

    Even before the UAE became the UAE, rugby had a firm footing in the country. Dubai Exiles – the oldest club in the country – celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2016; they date back to 1966.

    And they are responsible for creating the Dubai Rugby Sevens – the Middle East’s oldest sporting event and which celebrates its 50th birthday this year.

    In 1970 – the event’s debut – there was one sand pitch used, with a handful of spectators gathered along the touchline, with a few more players taking part on it. Half a century later, 100,000 spectators will line the stands and sidelines over three days of action. More than 300 teams – including the recently introduced netball tournament – will compete on eight pitches in 15 different categories.

    From the Staffordshire Regiment being crowned the first ever Dubai Rugby Sevens champions 50 years ago to becoming a leg on the famed World Rugby Sevens Series 20 years ago. Dubai is now arguably only behind Hong Kong in terms of the circuit’s most popular venue, with fans from across the country, region and the world flocking to The Sevens Stadium in early December.

    Since breakthrough moments in the late 90s – Emirates coming on board as official title sponsor and taking over the running of the tournament, the move from Exiles’ old Al Awir ground to The Sevens, and the exposure gained from establishing the link to the World Sevens Series – Dubai has helped sustain and develop rugby’s shortest format.

    So much so that at the 2020 Olympics next year in Tokyo, rugby sevens will be a core sport, having been introduced for the first time in 2016.

    The 50th staging of the tournament takes place from December 5-7 this year. Although it has exploded since Emirates took over from Exiles, the Dubai Sevens’ existence owes much to just three expats – Ken Thomas, Freddie Sherman and Paul Coxon – who came together looking for something to do with their time in the humid, dusty Dubai evenings half a century ago.

    Thomas’ eldest son Peter will be a guest at this year’s tournament, the first time he has attended in 20 years.

    “The ruling family donated some land at Al Awir and they got started,” recalls Thomas – born in Argentina in 1965 where his engineer father worked on building a dam, before moving to Dubai as a toddler – of the early days.

    “They marked out the pitch in tar and there were two sets of goal posts with no crossbars and a tin shack. That’s how Exiles started.

    “Here we are 50 years later and it’s a huge behemoth of a tournament. The Sevens has grown to be the famous bit. It was a hobby and passion my dad had his whole life.”

    It’s fitting that a man who laid the building blocks of Dubai – Thomas Senior worked for the Costain Group, responsible for building Dubai’s dry dock, port and Al Shindagha Tunnel – also played a huge role in laying the foundations for the Sevens itself.

    “Rugby was his absolute focus outside work and he thought this was the right thing to do,” Thomas adds. “We’d just come over from Argentina where he’d been playing. When he got to Dubai and couldn’t play he decided he needed to do something about it.”

    Throughout the 70s, new innovations made the tournament bigger and better every year. In 1987, the association with Dubai’s air carrier began, and that helped it really take off. Al Awir reached capacity at 32,000 in 2006, meaning the Sevens had tripled in size since just 2001.

    In 2012, Dubai hosted the first event of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series.

    Englishman Ben Ryan turned Fiji into a rugby sevens force.

    Englishman Ben Ryan turned Fiji into a rugby sevens force.

    This year will see rugby played in 17 different categories altogether, from the world-class athletes competing in the men’s and women’s Sevens Series to 230 other teams battling it out in the 15 other sections of the invitation tournament.

    From being born in Tucaman, at the foothills of the Andes, to growing up in Dubai and now back in his native UK, where he resides in Winchester – this sense of community rugby fosters is something 54-year-old Thomas emphatically embodies, and it has followed him throughout his life.

    It is something he explicitly remembers about his father – who passed away in 1998, with the Dubai Sevens hosting a memorial game for one of their founding fathers the following year.

    “I ended up working by chance in rugby for two-and-a-half years, as a corporate communications director at the RFU (Rugby Football Union). The values of the game remain and you saw that at the World Cup, which was different to any other,” he says.

    “The values and that link with the community, the family environment it creates is what I grew up with. The values of rugby mean a lot to me because of my early years. My father was a big believer in all those things.”