Time to make the break
The dust may have settled after the Dubai Sevens Rugby World Cup last month, but the International Rugby Board's (IRB) plans for the region are just beginning to emerge.
The Arabian Gulf, currently preparing to take on Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka and Taiwan in Division One of the HSBC Asian Five Nations at The Sevens venue in Dubai this week, will no longer exist by the end of 2010.
The Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU) are set to be replaced by an United Arab Emirates Rugby governing body, while the other countries who fall under the AGRFU umbrella will also be aided to form an independent national governance.
To oversee the winds of change blowing through this part of the world, the IRB have appointed Matthew Oakley as the West Asia Project Manager, based at The Sevens since January.
"The idea here is that the IRB has looked at this part of the world as having great potential for growth," says Oakley. "Events like the annual Dubai Sevens World Sevens Circuit even provide funding for development in the region.
"The IRB council voted last year to remove the membership of the AGRFU and, if plans work and if the United Arab Emirates can establish its own rugby governing body over the next two years with my help, then the UAE association, under the Sports Ministry here, will replace the Arabian Gulf as a member of the IRB.
"Aside from that, we're looking at a development plan for the West Asia area and we're also looking to help create individual rugby bodies in other countries.
"There is already a Qatar Rugby Federation, there is also a Jordan Rugby Union and we are looking to see where else we can create this in other Gulf states currently under the purview of the AGRFU."
The UAE should have no problem achieving this goal, as the majority of players for the Arabian Gulf reside in the country. Other states in the region without large expat populations, however, may face difficulties. Yet, Oakley doesn't regard it as an obstacle.
"Qatar has created their own rugby union, so it can be done," says the 43-year-old. "There is not necessarily going to be problems in other countries – you will still have your Bahrain rugby community, for example, playing under the Bahrain club. What we want to try and encourage in the smaller – what we call one-club – countries is for them to work with the local Sports Ministry and Education Ministry officials to a) help grow the game at school level among Arab children as well as the expatriate community and b) set up a rugby governing body in the country."
Countries with their own rugby unions can apply to the IRB for funds to aid the development of the game. This money is gained from profits made at the IRB Rugby World Cup and every member country is then entitled to a share.
A key objective of the IRB encouraging each country to have its own union is also to help rugby sevens win a place in the biggest sports event in the world – the Olympic Games.
"If and when, as I hope, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) do vote for rugby sevens to be included in the Olympics, then the national Olympic committees are bound to fund Olympic sports, of which rugby sevens will be one – so this is all part of a wider agenda of the Olympic campaign," says Oakley.
"The reality is that you will need a national governing body in every country for the Olympics. It will also access funding, which is key for the development of the game.
"If you have got funding it leads to facilities, equipment and more energised people to introduce the game into school curriculums.
"It is important to get more school children playing, so that, in years to come you will have, for instance, more Emirati players competing on merit for a place in the UAE national teams in IRB events, whereas they do, of course, represent their country in IOC events."
The Dubai Sevens Rugby World Cup, held on March 5-7, played a major role in the IRB's ongoing Olympic dream. IOC officials visited Dubai to watch the tournament ahead of a meeting in October where a decision will be made on which of rugby, baseball, golf, karate, roller sports, softball and squash will be included in the 2016 Games.
Oakley reveals the IRB were pleased with how the event transpired: "There would have been two or three key objectives of the IRB for the World Cup," he says. "First to make it a successful event in its own right, which it was.
"We don't deny ticket sales were lower than we would have liked, but you have a global credit crunch, which probably is the main reason for that. At the end of the day it was a successful tournament and the stands were full.
"The key objective we would like to think we met was we brought three IOC delegates, who saw the event first hand.
"Importantly, you also had women's rugby played and you had what rugby sevens is about – smaller nations upsetting bigger nations and making it through to the finals.
"That is the excitement Sevens brings to the game – it's the IRB's development for of the game."
Oakley stresses his appointment will not undermine the AGRFU, and the IRB plans to work together with the union to build on the existing development programmes here.
"I'm not saying the AGRFU is not doing good things," he says. "For instance, they have the Arabian Sevens played once a year. That's in its fourth year and it will grow from strength to strength. And school's rugby grew by 40 per cent in the UAE last year.
"Ghaith Jalajel is the Arabic rugby development officer for the region . We will like to see more Ghaiths in the future, with new positions created that will be run by an entity that has been set up to run development in the region.
"And, I am here to look at all these building blocks and put a plan in place."
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