Pakistan is probably not a country most people would immediately pick out as a hotbed of rugby enthusiasm, but for four members of the same family now living in the UAE, it’s been a life-long obsession.
While cricket is the sport of choice in Nanu Niazi’s home city of Islamabad, he admits he was always a little different.
He was actually a football player as a youngster, before one of his cousins “dragged” him along to a rugby sevens tournament.
Nanu never looked back since then and even went on to gain international honours for Pakistan.
The 28-year-old is actually a dual code Pakistani rugby international and two of his three cousins have all played internationally.
Nanu, who has lived in the UAE for 19 years, is the youngest of the foursome, with brothers Bilal, 36, Azmat, 34, and Shiraz, 29, all moving here in the last seven years.
“I used to play soccer back home but my cousins dragged me along to play rugby, as they played, and I really enjoyed it,” said the centre come winger.
“I love rugby, especially sevens as it’s more skilful. Rugby’s not that popular back home but I was never into cricket, there’s not enough happening.”
Incredibly, all four of the Niazi family have played at Sport360° UAE Premiership club Xodus Wasps this season.
Nanu was the first to play for Wasps soon after the club was established in 2010, and he returned the childhood favour his cousins had dealt him by steadily recruiting more members of the family to join the Wasps brotherhood.
“It was my idea to recruit my cousins,” said Nanu.
“We all played for the same team back home and I thought why not do it here too.”
It’s a familial bond that has carried them all the way to the international stage.
“Azmat, Shiraz and I have all played together for the Pakistani national team and I also played sevens and rugby league for the national team too,” added Nanu.
He played against the UAE rugby league side last year and is still involved with the national team.
“We only play a few games of union and league a year, but we will be playing rugby league against the UAE Falcons in January or February next year for the Tariq Niazi Cup.”
It has been a disappointing season on the pitch for Wasps and, unfortunately, the bad news continued off the pitch when the Dubai-based Niazi clan was broken up at the end of the Premiership campaign, with Nanu, Shiraz and Azmat deciding to leave the club in the last few weeks.
Wasps have always prided themselves on being a rugby family though, and having had three brothers and a cousin pulling on the yellow and black jersey certainly confirms that.
The introduction of a new category in the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens this year, for Gulf Under 18 Girls, has been hailed by coaches as a wonderful opportunity which will provide a fantastic boost for the women’s game in the UAE.
Coach of the Dubai Exiles Under 18 Girls, Andrew Williams, said: “This is an amazing opportunity for the girls. They will get the chance to rub shoulders with international ladies players and play in front of some large crowds.
"They are all extremely excited and have been training harder than ever on their fitness and skills to ensure that they play to their full potential on the day.”
While in the past there has been a competition for this category, the games were only played on half a pitch. The standard since then, according to Williams, has “risen beyond recognition, with more teams and a better standard of rugby being played.”
Praising the introduction of the category, Vince Ward, the team manager of the Dubai Hurricanes U18 Girls team, said: “It's very exciting as it shows just how far the girl's game has progressed over the last few years. It's always a test playing the other U18G teams in the UAE but it's going to be that much more challenging to play them in one of the largest rugby tournaments in the world!
"We're privileged to be part of the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, and very thankful to the Sevens organizers to allow us the opportunity to showcase the U18G game.”
Explaining how the new category promises to give a massive boost to the women’s game in the UAE, Williams added: “Professional rugby for women is such a new opportunity, but certainly there are one or two players who have the potential to develop their skills to that level. I am sure that the Sevens will give them a real taste of what a future rugby career could be like for them.
"I hope that we can get some of the womens’ teams to come and see how much potential our team has – some stars of the future for sure who I hope will one day play on the biggest stage.”
Ward included: “Two or three of our squad are seriously committed to rugby, and perhaps see themselves pursuing it to become a full-time career. We already have one player who has recently returned to England to train and play for Yorkshire county as well as trial for the England youth squad.
"The Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens provides a fantastic opportunity for all the girls to experience top-level rugby.
“We're very lucky that there are so many first-rate sporting events held in Dubai, and the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens offers the best out of them all. The girls are naturally excited to see their favourite players in the men's competitions; and pick up tips and techniques from watching all the ladies sides.”
When asked who his players will be looking forward to seeing the most, Ward said: “Apart from supporting the Hurricanes ladies in the Gulf Women, the girls tend to support their national teams – we have girls from South Africa, England, Australia and Spain – and they will be keen to see them perform and progress throughout the tournament.
"In terms of individual players, the likes of New Zealand's captain Huriana Manuel and Australia's Emilee Cherry are both exciting prospects to watch and learn from.”
The prospect of seeing young talent blossom on such a big stage is a major concept for the Invitation Tournament Director, Jill Conlon, who said: “The Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens has always been committed to creating a strong legacy for the event, and the introduction of the Gulf U18 Girls category is in keeping with that philosophy.
"Playing on such a huge stage, and in front of thousands of people, will help the girls develop their game and understand the demands of top-level rugby. We hope to see some of these girls selected for their national teams in the future.”
For all the information on the event and tickets, go to www.dubairugby7s.com.
Tim Walsh, the Australia Women’s Sevens coach, believes that his team is ready to continue from where they left off in season 2013-2014 when they won the first round of the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series at the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, beating their arch-rivals New Zealand 35-27 in the final.
After meeting New Zealand in every final of the five IRB Women’s Sevens World Series tournaments last year, and with two tournament wins each, it came down to the wire in the last event of the series in Amsterdam to decide the Series winner.
A thrilling final saw the Black Ferns eventually pip Australia at the post, taking the title in the Netherlands and winning their second consecutive IRB Women’s Sevens World Series by a narrow 96-92 margin.
Heading to Dubai and with their focus on a first round win, Walsh said: “We got off to a great start last year when we won the Dubai Sevens, and hopefully we can replicate that in 2014.
"To represent Australia in the Olympics is every kid’s dream in this country so that’s obviously added incentive this year.”
On the team’s preparation for the event, the 35-year-old said: “We have the Coral Coast Sevens tournament in Fiji (this week), which will be our last preparatory tournament leading into Dubai.
"We will keep training and take the flight over, arrive, and we’ll just get recovered and settled, and hopefully hit our game one ready to go and ready to start that journey to qualification.
“They are a very talented bunch of girls, and as most people are aware, in sport, many things can happen – so it’s how we adapt, how we adjust and how we overcome the adversity at times.
"We’re trying our best to be fully fit and prepared in the best possible way, and to make sure we repeat last year’s result in Dubai” Walsh added.
Title holders Australia are in Pool B of the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, alongside Spain, France and South Africa.
Their match against South Africa at 11 am on 4 December 2014 will also be the tournament-opener.
Looking forward to hosting Australia once again, Tournament Director Jim Fitzsimons said: “Australia went neck-and-neck with New Zealand all last season.
"And once again, their battle promises to be one of the main attractions in the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series.
"Their encounter in the Final here in 2013 was a thrilling clash, and with Australia now looking to go one better and win the overall title, the fans should be in for a real treat at The Sevens”.