Gulf Rugby LLC, the new public face of the soon-to-be defunct Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU), entered into a historic agreement with the UAE Rugby Association (UAERA) to offer their expertise and help maintain the status quo of the sport in the region.
UAERA Chairman Mohammed Abdulrahman Falaknaz signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at their new office in Satwa on Tuesday with the AGRFU chief Andy Cole to ensure a smooth transition of governance once the sport’s Dubai-based regional body is delisted from the IRB (International Rugby Board) on December 31.
“The underlying company that owns the AGRFU is Gulf Rugby. Any legal contract that we sign was in the name of Gulf Rugby,” said Cole.
The immediate benefit of this MoU is that cross border club competitions and Arabian Gulf’s position in the HSBC Asian Five Nations tournament will continue.
“It is a positive, historic and symbolic agreement. It was good on the part of UAE Rugby Association that they are prepared to do this so that club rugby will carry on as usual. Also the UAERA has formally undertaken to the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) that they want to play in the HSBC A5N Top Five taking over from the AGRFU,” said Matthew Oakley, IRB’s West Asia Project Manager who brokered the MoU between the two parties.
The UAERA agreed to abide by ARFU’s criteria for retaining the Arabian Gulf slot in the A5N tournament, chief among which was engaging with last season’s management and coaching team and players who battled for glory by notching historic wins over Hong Kong and South Korea.
“We got two options – to stay in the Top Five or Division One. We have chosen to stay at the top because we know it will take four or five years before we find a full team of UAE nationals to represent UAE. For the time being it is alright since IRB allows expatriates with three-year residency to play representative rugby. For the Olympics it has to be passport holders,” said Qais Abdullah Aldhalai, deputy general secretary of the UAERA.
Oakley lauded this as a magnanimous gesture on the part of the UAERA. “They want to retain top flight rugby here at international level which they didn’t have to. Of course to do that they need a good club rugby structure. That’s what really the MoU is about,” he said.
UAE-based clubs will compete in the Premiership and Conference (formerly Emirates League) competitions while Bahrain, Doha, Kuwait and newcomer Beirut Phoenicians will playoff in a Northern Gulf tournament. Muscat has been invited to take part in the Premiership with the winners meeting the Northern Gulf Cup champions for the ARFU West Asia Club Championship title.
“It is fantastic that UAERA has agreed to allow Muscat to compete in the UAE Premiership because people were wondering what will happen to these clubs once AGRFU is delisted. There is rugby for everybody and perhaps most important in the economic climate we’re going through, there is less travel for UAE clubs,” said Oakley.
UAE’s rugby chief agreed that nothing has changed as far as the weekend rugby is concerned but they had to look at the bigger picture and future growth of the game among locals.
“Rugby is going to be as it was but while that is happening, at our end we need to do a big job. We have to spread the game of rugby among local community. That’s why we are here and to do that we have hired Ghaith Jalajel (former AGRFU Arabic Development Officer),” said Falaknaz.
He was also keen to encourage rugby in local clubs.
“For example Al Ahli is the only local club to have a rugby team. We need to have rugby in clubs like Al Wasl and Al Nasr. Also we need rugby to become an acknowledged sport in schools,” he said.
The UAERA has as their slogan ‘Road to 2016’ with an eye on the Rio Olympics where Sevens Rugby would be a medal sport.
“That is our aim. I think we are on the right path. We are doing the best for the love of the game,” said Falaknaz.
“We are working together with the IRB and need the efforts of all rugby elements in the region especially UAE to achieve this goal,” added Aldhalai.
Asked whether they would insist on Emiratis being included in the UAE team for the A5N, Aldhalai said the bottom line is the selection process.
“If they are good enough they would get selected,” he said.
“We don’t want to speed up the process but take it step by step. In April when we held the first tournament for Arabic school children we saw passion in their eyes. We want to focus on 8-12 age groups,” said Qais.
Oakley said that a new tournament exclusively for UAE nationals would be held a week before the Dubai Sevens, the future of which is still unclear after this year’s event.
“It is premature to talk about who will run it next year because it involves the IRB World Sevens Series and contracts have to renegotiated,” he said.
The AGRFU chief was confident their working relationship with the UAE body has given stability and security to those concerned with the sport in the region.
“This is a major step really. I think this is not only a historical year but also we got great responsibility between us to make this work. That could be the way forward for the rest of the Gulf,” he said.
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