MAGNIFICENT SEVENS: A DECADE OF THRILLS AND SPILLS
Whether you come for scrummaging or the socialising, Dubai’s annual rugby festival has evolved at its new home, says Paul Radley
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.”