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.
A revised 2017/18 calendar has been sent to rugby clubs in the UAE due to the possibility of Doha playing in next season’s West Asia Premiership.
Due to the ongoing Qatar boycott involving several Gulf nations, including the UAE, due to alleged links to terrorism, it was widely believed that Doha would not compete in any cross-border competitions with clubs from the Emirates, as well as Bahrain, this coming season.
The UAE Rugby Federation released an initial list of dates for its competitions next season on July 1, with Alex Natera’s Doha a notable omission.
Newly-formed Dubai Eagles, based at Dubai Sports City, were granted entry into both the UAE Premiership and West Asia Premiership. But it has since emerged that talks have been held that could see the Qataris compete by playing their matches at a neutral venue – with Muscat the most likely option.
And Asia Rugby development consultant Ghaith Jalajel confirmed on Saturday that a revised rugby calendar has been sent to all UAE clubs with Doha included in the fixture list.
“It is a possibility we looked at and have consulted clubs about playing games at a neutral venue,” said Jalajel.
“We are still to come to a decision so I’m not sure whether this will go ahead. A draft fixtures list has been sent today to the clubs and we should be able to review and confirm all the fixtures by the end of this week or early next week.”
Doha were runners-up to West Asia Premiership champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins last season and have been a fixture of Gulf rugby for many years.
And Jalajel said their continued involvement is something that has received the backing of the majority of opponents.
“I would say everyone, all the clubs in the UAE, wanted Doha in the competition next year,” he added.
“It’s just a matter of feasibility and whether they can participate, in terms of cost and travel time to the neutral venue.”
The possibility of Doha being allowed to compete next season had been met with mixed reactions among the UAE rugby community last week.
The cost of travelling to Doha or Muscat has been raised as a concern, while some clubs feel it would extend an already swollen fixture list.