UAE rugby chief ready for larger role

Falaknaz feels rugby will be popular in the country. (LOAY ABU HAYKEL )

The UAE Rugby Association (UAERA) may be a fledgling national governing body but it has no jitters in taking over the baton in running the sport when the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU) is disbanded as a member of the International Rugby Board (IRB) on December 31.

“Actually what we are doing is starting from scratch as if it (rugby) never existed. It is difficult to start something new but it is more difficult to take something from someone and correct it or add to it and start all over again,” said UAERA Chairman Mohammad Abdulrahman Falaknaz in an exclusive interview.

Falaknaz was appointed by a government decree to form an association and take rugby forward in the UAE. “We were officially formed in February 2009 but we started may be a year and half before that, somewhere around 2007. We put together a team and everything. A bunch of guys who were rugby fanatics and an informal UAE national team at the time,” said Falaknaz who is a rookie in sports administration.

“I have not been directly involved in sport but have been indirectly involved with my father (Abdulrahman Falaknaz). He is involved in the National Olympic Committee, is UAE Tennis Vice-Chairman and Chairman of the Dubai Cricket Council. This is my first opportunity in doing so,” admitted Falaknaz who has up the new challenge with unbridled enthusiasm.

“I like to do something that is challenging and different. Rugby is a totally different kind of sport in this area. I like the sport of rugby,” he said when asked why he agreed to take up this appointment.

“We are official. Like any sport federation we are treated equally by the government and we are responsible equally to the government and society,” he declared. “I took the responsibility and we are working well so far.”

He is aware of the long and rich tradition the sport enjoys in the region particularly in the UAE. “Let me say that it has been here for long time and may be people were not noticing it. It has been here for 40 years. Unfortunately people did not notice sport of rugby though it was commonly played by the expat population and that also on a very low profile. If not for Dubai Sevens the sport of rugby will never be what it is today in this area,” said Falaknaz.

Indirectly criticising the AGRFU for not promoting the game among the local population, he said the UAERA has a mountain to climb.

“Now we have the burden of creating a UAE national team that can compete. With this association that we have, we have a lot of missions to complete,” he said.

The AGRFU was the governing body for the sport in the region and fielded teams at the annual Dubai Sevens and Rugby World Cup qualifiers. “The AGRFU looked after four-five countries. As far as we are concerned we are only responsible for rugby in the UAE. We are responsible to develop rugby in the UAE. We are responsible to come up with a UAE team that can represent UAE,” said Falaknaz.

Asked how the absence of AGRFU would affect UAE, he said: “Honestly it has been creating some kind of problems for the other teams. When we formed the UAE rugby association those teams who belong to those countries, now they are lost. They don’t belong to anybody because the AGRFU is not going to exist any more. This is what I mean when you do something from scratch it is much easier than to take something from somebody or someone and do it all over again because we have to correct a lot of things. You have to add to what that person was doing.”

Falaknaz admitted UAE were at an advantage because the majority of the clubs are based here. “If you compare UAE with neighbouring countries yes we have lot of advantages not only because of clubs which are existing here. The other advantage we have is the Emirates Airlines Rugby Sevens that happens here every year. That is a big advantage,” he said.

What will happen to the domestic league? “We will have a UAE Premiership and they would be part of it just like any other sport. UAE clubs are welcome to be part of UAERA and they have to be part of UAERA for them to be acknowledged. We are going to look after these teams and we are going to promote them to play cross border rugby. We are in the midst of creating this agreement with AGRFU that would allow them to carry on the cross border rugby under our observation,” he said.

Asked what obstacles the UAERA faced during the transition phase, Falaknaz said: “Let’s give AGRFU lot of credit for what they have been doing but we are new people coming in. We need to understand the game of rugby that is there but we do not understand fully the management that was happening. So that is one obstacle. The other is the cross-border games. Third as far as UAERA is concerned we need to do it as soon as possible.

AGRFU what they did is way ahead of us. We need to catch up or be at that level. Still we are going to continue the game of rugby like it was and taking it forward.”

Although they appear to be slow off the blocks, Falaknaz says they have been doing the groundwork. “It’s like a construction business. I have announced some kind of project and you don’t see anything even after a year and half, that means I’m doing the infrastructure and then you will see the building. If you don’t see anything in that perspective that means we are still laying the foundation work. The thing that we have been doing is we have been talking to IRB and ARFU (Asian Rugby Football Union) and thank God we got Associate Membership from ARFU last December and we are working towards getting full membership. Likewise we are meeting with IRB (West Asia) representative Matthew Oakley every now and then just to go about the business of rugby,” he explained.

But they are in no hurry to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the AGRFU. “We said we would agree to join hands with AGRFU since they are not going to be in existence or become dinosaurs after six months. We need to make them alive and we need to get their experience. We need to join hands in taking this forward for the benefit of rugby and the mission that we have from the Ministry will become easier for us to execute or to accomplish. Yes there is an MoU waiting to be signed but we need to correct some of the things,” he said.

Falaknaz says they want to go about this task in an orderly manner. “At this point of time we are involving IRB to help us in this with their guidance. Instead of us and AGRFU going back and forth, we have asked the IRB to intervene in the deal and make it easier for both parties. At the end we want to go on with the sport of rugby. IRB is looking after the whole project. It is common to go to them (AGRFU) and tell them ‘come on guys you tell us what you can do’ at the same time there are limitations. We have obligations to the government of UAE, things that we can and can’t do. Everything has to work in harmony. AGRFU is different from UAERA. We are a government body and even the members, everybody who were anxious to get this deal signed have to appreciate that this is a government body,” he said.

What is certain at the moment is a UAE national team would replace Arabian Gulf at the Asian Five Nations next year. “We have an option of playing in A5N at the Premiership or Division 1. Since we have the capacity or the players that are capable of taking us there, we have agreed to take some of the Arabian Gulf players on board to represent us. So we have decided to go full speed in that direction and play in the Premiership. That’s another milestone we are going to be happy about,” he said.

Asked how they felt about expatriates representing the UAE rugby team for IRB or ARFU tournaments which applies the three-year residency rule,  Falaknaz said: “There has to be some kind of exceptions to the rule just like the game of cricket. Cricket permits one local player because it is played mainly by expats. But its not going to continue forever having one player. The things is to spread the game among the local communities.

But to introduce local players takes time. Little by little at the end you will have a team that is fully nationals. We are doing the same thing.

If we get two locals in a team then it doesn’t matter about the rest. Since the AGRFU already has a team and they are capable approved by representatives of IRB and ARFU it’s ok. We can take them on board so they can represent UAE and go ahead.”

However, it will be different challenge for Olympic tournaments where only passport holders can represent a country. “Now we have strategy or slogan ‘Road to Olympics 2016’ for us to be represented by all locals. We are working now.”

Eventually, he says, they want to have a team full of nationals. “This year you will see the fruits of what we have been working in the past year and half. You will see rugby in schools, lot of rugby tournaments,” he said.

Falaknaz feels rugby will be able to compete for second position in terms of popularity. “Football will always remain No 1. Rugby can compete for  second position among other sports. All the sports are nice and they have their own challenges and everything. I think rugby is more fun than everything else,” he said.

He shrugged off suggestions that people would be turned off by the physical nature of the game. “Because of the physical aspect, people will like it. It’s not physical as you think. If it was that physical, they (players) would be arming themselves with pads just like in American Football.

It is a little more physical than the sport of football,” he said.

Falaknaz has endeared himself to the technicalities of the sport. “The aspect of passing instead of passing forward, you have to pass it backwards, tactics, positions are totally different. I think it will be more accepted in the schools,” said Falaknaz who was pleasantly surprised

when his daughter, a sixth grade student came one day and said “Dad we are playing rugby at school.”

The UAERA have already hired AGRFU’s Arabic Development Officer Ghaith Jalajel and have shortlisted two candidates for the position of Head Coach. “Ghaith is responsible for development of rugby in schools. We are going to introduce rugby at different levels so that we will be ready,” he said.

On their absence in this year’s Asian Games, the UAE rugby chief said: “The government has changed strategy. To participate in any of these international competitions you need to accomplish something. We can’t just go there for the sake of participation and come back. That is a big challenge. We are working towards that. For us to show them that we have a team that can accomplish something is by having participation in Dubai Sevens and A5N, that sort of tournaments.”

Funding for the game will be one of the biggest challenges. “At the beginning funds is not that much. When you accomplish something I’m sure the government of UAE will deny you anything what is due. They will give everything for you for the sake of the country. At the same time we are going to market some of the products that we have to be sponsored. We have programmes we hope to generate money. That would be enough for us to do lot of things, for camping here, camping outside, bringing in coaches, etc. We will be self sufficient for now,” he said.

What is his aim as UAERA Chairman? “I want the UAE to be represented in every arena when it comes to rugby. Other objective is to introduce rugby everywhere in my country. I want to see people playing rugby on weekends. I want to see people playing rugby as a fun sport. We are introducing rugby in every way and make it more attractive for boys and girls,” said Falaknaz.