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’.
Meli Ganilau feeding in a scrum for the Winston Barbas.
Amenatave Volavola kicking off for the “Fiji First Qanitavaya” team
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.