Ex-diplomat oversees changes in Gulf rugby

Matthew Oakley acknowledges the role of the expatriate community in making the sport popular in the region. (ASHOK VERMA)

The landmark agreement signed between Gulf Rugby LLC and the UAE Rugby Association (UAERA) on Tuesday which ushered in a new era of governance for the sport in the region required all the diplomatic skills of the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) West Asia project manager Matthew Oakley.

In an exclusive interview with Emirates 24|7 before the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) became effective, the former British diplomat outlined IRB’s objectives for the region and how he set about tackling the issues since his appointment 18 months ago.

“When IRB created this particular project manager role for three years in West Asia which is effectively the Arabian Gulf rugby region, I saw the job advertisement and what the criteria were. I thought I could fit the bill with my background in rugby,” said Oakley when asked why he took up the job in the first place.

“I’m known in Asian rugby circles. I’ve been a diplomat and I have experience of the Middle East. I thought I was a very good fit for the job and I was, because I got the job,” said Oakley who worked in the British Foreign Office for 21 years including Saudi Arabia as a young Vice-Consul.

Indeed it was familiar territory for Oakley who played as a hooker for Jeddah and Riyadh rugby clubs from 1988 to 1992. “I know some of the Arabian Gulf rugby community who are still here from 20 years ago. My diplomatic career eventually led me to Singapore where I transformed from being a player to a referee at that stage,” said Oakley who has officiated in Rugby World Cup qualifying Test matches and also the Dubai Sevens.

His task was “to oversee a transition of governance for rugby in this part of the world from the Arabian Gulf Rugby Union (AGRFU), the expatriate body to National governing bodies.”

The reason was because the Arabian Gulf doesn’t fit any more into the world governance structures of sport. “They have to be national governing bodies. Arabian Gulf doesn’t play football, it is Bahrain that plays in the Asia group to qualify for the World Cup,” he pointed out.

The Olympic decision also necessitated change. “There needs to be national governing bodies for the sport of rugby especially since it is an Olympic sport and because Rugby Sevens was voted into the Olympics in Copenhagen last year,” he said.

It also boiled down to funding. “To access the funding that will be available from National Olympic Committees, an Arabian Gulf bunch of expatriates based normally in Dubai are not going to be able to access money from the Kuwait or the Saudi Olympic committee for an Olympic sport, for education and development in schools. To grow the game it has to be national governing bodies,” he explained.

Asked why the IRB took a decision to delist AGRFU after all these years of existence, Oakley said the membership issue was flagged up to them four years ago. “It was quasi regional association but not recognised by the IRB as a regional association and it is a rugby union in its own right because it has clubs. Ultimately the AGRFU was seen as an unnecessary and I suggest an anachronistic tier of governance that no longer fits into world governance of sport,” said Oakley.

He acknowledged the role of the expatriate community in making the sport popular in the region. “Nobody is denying that the expatriate communities of the Gulf states including UAE are largely the majority of the rugby community. But we have to have proper governance,” he reiterated.

“Sri Lanka next season could argue quite rightfully ‘why are we playing this entity called the Arabian Gulf. Why aren’t we playing the UAE or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia (in the Asian Five Nations)’,” he said.

The AGRFU had virtually outlived its purpose since it was recognised by the IRB 20 years ago, said Oakley. “At that time it was the right model to grow the game here. But as we move into Olympic era, as the Gulf states mature in their own governance, in their own awareness, own desire to govern their own sport in their own country, the International Rugby Board has to respect that just as Fifa do, just as the International Cricket Council do, there has to be the UAE rugby association,” he said.

“We are going to assist the UAERA with a new competition management secretariat that will continue organising the cross border rugby,” he said on the reason behind signing the MoU.

“The national governing bodies will sanction the rugby and the Competition Management secretariat will largely run it for them. The IRB supports that, ARFU (Asian Rugby Football Union) supports that. So the expat community will still have their rugby but they are not going to be in governance or in key positions of power. That’s the reality of it,” he said.

How does IRB expect the local unions to form national teams? “We are starting largely from scratch. I’m not saying the AGRFU have not done some development initiatives for Arab players. They have an Arabian Sevens Challenge tournament for the last five years and they had Ghaith Jalagel as an Arabic speaking Development officer for the last 4-5 years. The AGRFU did have this year the first ever Arabic Speaking Schools Tag rugby tournament. But it is now for the national governing bodies like the UAERA to focus on that,” he said.

The IRB will help as will ARFU to put in place a long-term development programme. “I think we have to look at it as a 20-year programme. We are looking to grow the game fundamentally amongst a new population on the back of the Olympic decision,” he said.

The way forward would be to strengthen the clubs, he feels. “There is a pipeline for the new Arab Emirati players to join the clubs to play 15-a-side rugby. If they want to form their own club fantastic but to run a club and play 15-a-side rugby for a whole season you need that rugby knowledge. And at the moment there isn’t a great deal of them who have a real depth of knowledge,” he said.

Emerging rugby nations like UAE should be realistic of their chances of playing in the 12-team Olympic competition, said Oakley. “I would be delighted if the UAE team was good enough to qualify for the Olympic Games. But I think for the young rugby countries, their goal is probably to perform at a very competitive level in the qualifying tournaments and improve and learn from it. That I think is a realistic goal for them,” he said.


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