Whether you come for scrum­mag­ing or the so­cial­is­ing, Dubai’s an­nual rugby fes­ti­val has evolved at its new home, says Paul Radley

The National - News - - SPORT RUGBY UNION -

Re­mem­ber that time when…

For any­one who has ex­pe­ri­enced more than one Dubai Rugby Sevens, that is the way many a con­ver­sa­tion could start. Meet­ing up with like minds and rem­i­nisc­ing about the good old days feels es­pe­cially per­ti­nent this week­end. It is the 10-year an­niver­sary of the re­gion’s an­nual rugby cel­e­bra­tion be­ing played at The Sevens.

Those who can re­mem­ber the old Ex­iles ground in Al Awir might get misty-eyed about the tour­na­ment as it was be­fore the bull­doz­ers moved in to make way for the Mey­dan project. But, in what hardly feels like a decade since, the new venue has cre­ated more than a few mem­o­ries.

Like that time in 2015 when Owen Far­rell was here to watch fa­ther Andy play for Join­ing Jack in the In­ter­na­tional Vets.

He man­aged to get through that whole week­end with­out cre­at­ing any con­tro­versy over drop­ping the shoul­der on any­one, no mat­ter how many tack­les Jack John­son, the young boy in whose name the char­ity was cre­ated, went in for on the Eng­land fly-half.

Or that time, a year later, when Josh Lewsey – five years re­tired from a ca­reer that had brought him ev­ery ma­jor medal in the sport – cel­e­brated his 40th birth­day with a rare yel­low card.

That hap­pened while he was play­ing on an out­side field in a so­cial com­pe­ti­tion that ranks among the lower tiers of the 17 tour­na­ments that run con­cur­rently, along­side his two broth­ers and with his mum and dad watch­ing.

Or that time last year when Serge Bet­sen, the for­mer France back-row ti­tan, warmed up for a match in the vets com­pe­ti­tion by singing and bop­ping along to Ja­son Mraz’s I’m Yours. Maybe that’s his jam: the match that fol­lowed was a blood­bath, with Bet­sen among a num­ber of for­mer stars who were ei­ther sin-binned or red-carded.

This is the sort of fare that is the essence of the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Such mem­o­ries are not, it’s fair to say, unique to the new venue. Af­ter all, back in 2006, the world’s best rugby player of the time Dan Carter was a wa­ter boy for an in­vi­ta­tional side at the old Ex­iles ground. And Richie McCaw, Ali Wil­liams and Mils Mu­li­aina – each All Blacks of great renown – idled away the week­end along with ev­ery­one else in the scaf­fold­ing stands.

The tour­na­ment’s or­gan­is­ers were adamant the new venue would re­tain the same am­biance as the old one when the switch was made.

The bull­doz­ers moved in the day af­ter the 2007 fi­nal was played. The or­gan­is­ers took their scaf­fold­ing with them and, with the paint still set on the dress­ing room walls, The Sevens played host to its first com­pe­ti­tion.

Ini­tially, Gary Chap­man, the pres­i­dent of Emi­rates Group Ser­vices and Dnata who over­saw the move and sub­se­quent growth of the tour­na­ment, said it would move from the Ex­iles “over my dead body”. But the ground, as well as the Dar­jeel­ing Cricket Club and Dubai Coun­try Club which neigh­boured it, were soon taken over by the rapid ur­ban ex­pan­sion of the city.

A fa­cil­ity fit to host the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens, ap­prox­i­mately 22 kilo­me­tres from the old site, along the Dubai-Al Ain Road, was con­structed within 423 days, on what was formerly a camel farm. When the first do­mes­tic matches were played at the site, it was still just a patch of grass with no for­mal fa­cil­i­ties around it while camels grazed freely on the sin­gle-track road that led in and out.

The 2008 Sevens was the first ma­jor tour­na­ment, as a dress-re­hearsal for the World Cup. “The Ex­iles was the club at the end of the Creek,” said Sean Hur­ley, who was a mem­ber of the Ara­bian Gulf side who en­joyed home ad­van­tage at that 2009 World Cup, which was won by Wales.

“When I think about it now, I used to think, ‘Oh my God, the Ex­iles is so far out of town’. Now ev­ery­one has be­come ac­cus­tomed to go­ing out to The Sevens in the 11 years since the Ex­iles moved.

“At one end of the ground was the con­crete stand that was there all year round, with the dress­ing rooms un­der­neath where we used to change next to the in­ter­na­tional boys when we were play­ing with the Ara­bian Gulf.

“It was more in­ti­mate than it is now, but at the time I thought it was the big­gest sta­dium I had ever played at in my whole life. Then they built The Sevens, and it grew it mas­sively. The fa­cil­i­ties are world-class, but there was still the same feel.

“I still drive past that area and wish it was there. It’s amaz­ing that we used to think that was so far out of town.”

Few are bet­ter placed to com­ment on the tran­si­tion be­tween the two venues than Mike Fri­day, who will be back here as United States coach this week­end. In 1994, he was a player on what was then sand pitches in Dubai, and in 2004 he won the first of back-to-back ti­tles as coach of Eng­land.

“I love this place,” Fri­day said in 2014, cel­e­brat­ing his 20-year an­niver­sary of com­ing to the event. “I’m dis­ap­pointed the sand has gone, I used to en­joy play­ing on that. It is the tour­na­ment for rugby purists.

“I still re­mem­ber the days when you would sit in the chang­ing rooms with your Eng­land shirt on and you would be sat next to a vet who was hav­ing a fag. It was proper rugby and they have man­aged to keep that alive in Dubai.

“The so­cial, vets and in­vi­ta­tional tour­na­ments are what make this week­end so spe­cial.”

The legacy of the 2009 World Cup Sevens was a new head­quar­ters for rugby in West Asia. Much has changed in the decade since.

For ex­am­ple, there is no longer lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the main, World Se­ries tour­na­ment at the Sevens. In­deed, the rep­re­sen­ta­tive side has a dif­fer­ent guise it­self.

The Ara­bian Gulf played on for two years, be­fore the union was bro­ken into its con­stituent

parts, at the di­rec­tion of World Rugby. The new UAE team played in one home sevens, then has not been back to fea­ture in the main com­pe­ti­tion since.

The Sevens has a slightly al­tered per­spec­tive, too. In­stead of be­ing solely rugby ori­en­tated, it reg­u­larly plays host to a va­ri­ety of other sports to­day, with hi-spec cricket ovals ad­ja­cent, while net­ball even fea­tures in the Sevens tour­na­ment pro­gramme, it­self.

And, although the growth of Dubai means there are now other venues for rugby, which were not avail­able 10 years ago, The Sevens re­mains the sport’s hub in the Mid­dle East.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic sta­dium and the fa­cil­i­ties are sec­ond to none, in most of the south­ern hemi­sphere, I’d imag­ine,” said Gra­ham Brown, the Dubai Hur­ri­canes club cap­tain, who was part of the win­ning side in the last Gulf Men’s League fi­nal to played at the old venue.

“Jonathan Davies [the Wales great] was here re­cently, and he said the pitch at The Sevens is bet­ter than any he ever played on in­ter­na­tional. It is like a bowl­ing green.

“We have strug­gled a bit with num­bers, purely be­cause other clubs have set up else­where in the city – the Ea­gles at Dubai Sports City and Dragons at Jebel Ali Shoot­ing Club – be­cause there were a lot of peo­ple in Dubai at the time and not ev­ery­body wanted to drive all the way out there.

“But we could not be any­where else, given we have around 700 ju­nior mem­bers, and The Sevens is won­der­ful.”

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