Seven years ago there was no Dubai Tigers rugby club.
Roll that clock forward to last Friday and they had a men’s first team taking on the reigning champions in the West Asia Premiership, a second team competing in the UAE Division 1 (formerly UAE conference), and that morning a large proportion of their 600 mini and youth players had taken part in training. Yes, that’s 600 youngsters – the largest offering in UAE rugby. You can add an active touch section, and ladies set-up to this.
It’s an astonishing rise for a club built on a very simple idea – the love of the game.
When Shane Thornton got the wheels in motion back in 2013, few would have forecast the trajectory the club has gone on to take. Built on the foundations of quality coaching, player improvement and an enjoyment of the game at all levels, the club is flourishing.
Heading up the coaching today is former Italy international Aaron Persico. A man with 56-international caps to his name and a professional pedigree that saw him play in England, France and Italy, as well as at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
As an ex-player establishing himself in the world of coaching, Tigers offer the perfect home.
“The club has a real ethos of development,” says Persico, who is entering his third season with the club. “There has always been a focus on quality coaching and helping players improve. We always want to get the senior players involved at all levels and drive learning through enjoyment.”
Such has been the development of the junior set-up, they are now branching out within schools and the rugby community.
“Taking on the principles of Tigers’ rugby we have created Evolution Rugby Skills Academy to develop rugby within the school programme, and we are already working with Arcadia, King’s Dubai, JBS, and King’s Al Barsha,” added Persico.
The men’s first team went two season unbeaten, claiming two Conference titles in that time, and ultimately gaining promotion to the West Asia Premiership. And they are relishing the opportunity to test themselves against the best the region has to offer.
“When we won the Conference the first time round we looked at the player profile and chose not to go up, but now we have strengthened, have more depth, and are ready to compete while still playing a brand of positive, attractive rugby,” explains Persico.
“We asked the rugby community for advice, the players were keen and we felt it was the right thing to do, to help UAE rugby too.”
A 39-5 defeat to Bahrain on the opening day was filled with positives. “Friday was a really enjoyable day out for the boys,” says Persico. “There was a lot we can take away from the game against a very good side. There are things we can work on, but it was a great foundation for our season.”
It was a similar tale for the seconds who went down to a strong Abu Dhabi Saracens outfit, but showed enough to be confident the building blocks are in place for a positive campaign.
From the outside looking in it is an unconventional approach at Tigers; the summer has consisted of no fitness sessions, and training is limited to one session per week – something the coaching group feels brings the best out of the players. But there is one recurring theme – developing skills and enjoyment.
“We have to adapt because players are busy with work and other commitments,” explains Persico. “A lot of planning goes into making sure we get the most out of sessions, and the boys like having one a week. We want them to enjoy their rugby, develop their skills and want to have the ball in their hands and ultimately have fun – obviously they are encouraged to do their fitness work in their own time.”
At 41-years-of-age, Persico admits he would like to spend his Fridays watching from the sidelines as the two senior teams take on the challenge of new divisions, however he’s happy to fill in where necessary.
“I always wanted to give back to the game of rugby,” he says. “We have a great community here with many diverse cultures and I count myself very fortune to be part of it. For now I want to focus on my coaching and the next part of my career, striving to develop as a coach and also help develop players.
“I also want to earn the respect of my team-mates, and do the best for the team and that may mean filling in playing when necessary. Although I have not long had a little boy and it would be nice if he could see me play at least once.
“We have a lot to look forward to over the coming season, and hopefully we can take the opportunities that are in front of us.”
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