mailife - - Sports - By SOPHIA TORI

Take a man from the Fi­jian Is­lands, plonk him in a desert city devoid of nat­u­ral life and alien to ev­ery­thing he’s known, and watch him mak­ing his way in the only fa­mil­iar arena that re­mains truly, recog­nis­ably ‘home’: the rugby field. Rugby in the Mid­dle East doesn’t have much of a foothold. There is lit­tle to no fan base, spon­sor­ship, ded­i­cated grounds or con­sis­tency of in­ter­est. How­ever this doesn’t de­ter Fi­jian ex­pats one bit from de­vel­op­ing the sport and rais­ing in­ter­est in an ef­fort to make the Mid­dle East an­other site of wor­thy com­pe­ti­tion. In Kuwait, a small Arab coun­try on the Ara­bian gulf, freed from Iraqi oc­cu­pa­tion in 1991 and still un­der­go­ing eco­nomic

re­vival on rich oil re­serves, is where rugby in the Mid­dle East re­ally be­gan. The Kuwait Scor­pi­ons, the old­est rugby club in the Mid­dle East, was es­tab­lished in 1946 when Kuwait Oil Com­pany and the Bri­tish Army played the first ever recorded fix­ture in the re­gion. To­day, the Kuwait Scor­pi­ons are a reg­is­tered mem­ber of Gulf Rugby, which is af­fil­i­ated with the In­ter­na­tional Rugby Board, and the club con­sists pre­dom­i­nantly of Fi­jians, with Bri­tish, US, Cana­dian, Le­banese, Egyp­tian, South African, Aus­tralian, New Zealand and Kuwaiti mem­bers in Men’s Se­niors, Ladies’ Se­niors and Men’s Vet­er­ans teams.

Rugby in the Mid­dle East comes with its own set of chal­lenges. As grass is hard to come by in the un­for­giv­ing ter­rain of Kuwait’s sand and stone, kick­abouts are al­ways or­gan­ised and never spon­ta­neous; and with tem­per­a­tures ris­ing up to 48°C in sum­mer, the arid­ity and poor air qual­ity makes out­door pur­suits more phys­i­cally chal­leng­ing so the rugby sea­son wraps up be­fore the sum­mer­time be­gins. Meli Gani­lau, cap­tain of the Kuwait Scor­pi­ons is from Ovalau. He led the team in the Fiji Sevens ‘We shall over­come’ post match an­them, adopted this sea­son by the Scor­pi­ons to cel­e­brate their re­cent vic­tory 55-7 against Mus­cat (Oman) on home turf – just one small el­e­ment of how much Fi­jian ex­pats have given to Kuwaiti and Mid­dle East­ern rugby in gen­eral. In 2014, Kuwait Scor­pi­ons won the Gulf Rugby Cup in the Dubai 7s with an al­most 100% Fi­jian team (1 Cana­dian, 2 Kuwaitis). For­mer Fiji 7s and 15s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Sai­moni ‘Rocky’ Rokini, has been coach­ing and play­ing for the Kuwait Scor­pi­ons since 2009. Ar­guably, without the Fi­jians the Kuwait Scor­pi­ons would suf­fer in man­age­ment and in play. While the above suc­cesses are wor­thy of con­grat­u­la­tions, it is im­por­tant to note that it has been a strug­gle for play­ers rep­re­sent­ing the na­tion of Kuwait. As none are paid for their ef­forts, the sport is not taken se­ri­ously and the stakes were never be­ing raised – un­til now. Gani­lau and the team man­age­ment wish to fol­low a sim­i­lar model to the Dubai and Qatar Rugby Clubs, whereby play­ers are con­tracted in and pro­vided hous­ing. Cur­rently, Do­har has five Fi­jians, and Dubai has 13 rep­re­sent­ing three of their clubs. Kuwait Scor­pi­ons cur­rently stand sec­ond in the league. Af­ter just miss­ing the top spot by one point to Mus­cat,

the Scor­pi­ons will present a case to the Min­istry of Sport re­gard­ing de­vel­op­ing rugby in Kuwait, pay­ing play­ers, and po­ten­tially of­fer­ing sports de­vel­op­ment roles to na­tion­als and non-na­tion­als in the Mid­dle East. Out­side the fa­mil­iar com­forts of rugby that Fi­jian play­ers en­joy, be­ing a mi­nor­ity in any for­eign coun­try is a hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence and, as Gani­lau ex­plains, is dif­fi­cult at times. Of the most chal­leng­ing as­pects of liv­ing in the Mid­dle East, be­ing away from fam­ily and the lack of free­dom is amongst the rough­est. “Some­times you feel like tak­ing off all your clothes!” he said. In a con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic coun­try, bar­ing shoul­ders to air those sweaty armpits is not so sim­ple. And what to do when want­ing to lay back and kick up a lit­tle, where danc­ing in pub­lic and al­co­hol are il­le­gal (no bars or clubs). With ship­ping re­stric­tions placed on kava, all that can be done is to lug kava in your lug­gage and sell it for 20KWD per 1 kg (that’s 136FJD), and of course en­joy the lim­ited takis with your fel­low ex­pats. It is also not com­mon­place to swim in the sea, again be­cause of con­ser­vatism and be­cause the wa­ters in the Ara­bian Gulf did not fare too well dur­ing the Iraqi oc­cu­pa­tion (bombed co­ral and sunken ships). You’ve got to get cre­ative with your time, and that’s where rugby plays a big part for Fi­jian ex­pats. De­spite cul­tural ad­just­ments, it’s when at­tend­ing rugby train­ing ses­sions and drink­ing kava that Ganil­iau can feel as if it is ‘just like back in Fiji’.

Ame­natave Volavola kick­ing off for the “Fiji First Qan­i­tavaya” team

Meli Gani­lau

Meli Gani­lau feed­ing in a scrum for the Win­ston Bar­bas.

Eseroma Ravula for the “Join­ing Jacks” is wrapped up in a tackle against the “Fiji First Qan­i­tavaya”

Pita Vakalolo go­ing in for a tackle as “Fiji First Qan­i­tavaya” cap­tain Keni Tausasa looks on.

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