One of the highlights on the UAE sports calendar is back after 726 days and the event’s oldest club is confident of their chances
It feels fitting the UAE’s longest running, and arguably most popular, sporting event should return after its lengthiest ever break on the country’s 50th anniversary.
The Emirates Dubai Sevens is being restored to its traditional place on the sporting calendar on National Day weekend.
By the time spectators start pouring back through the gates on Thursday morning, it will have been 726 days since they were last admitted to the weekend rugby festival.
The Covid pandemic achieved something last year, that even two Gulf Wars failed to do, in causing the Sevens to be cancelled. Never in its history had that happened before.
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And that is a history which predates the formation of the country itself. A tournament which started out as the Benson and Hedges Dubai 7s Rugby Tournament was first played in 1970.
Other than the hosts, the participating teams were mainly Sharjah-based British military teams. The matches were played on sand pitches raked smooth, with stones removed beforehand, and lines marked with bitumen.
The difference to the present day is vast. Grass pitches were installed in 1996, then the tournament was uprooted entirely from its former home at The Exiles in Al Awir to the new site on the Al Ain Road in 2009.
The tournament’s founders are much changed, too. For a start, no longer are the Exiles owners of the tournament.
They are, though, the pre-eminent force in domestic rugby, having won successive titles in the XVs format.
They contributed four players to the UAE squad which competed in the recent Asia Sevens Series, and they are optimistic of their chances of regaining the Gulf Men’s League title for the first time since 2017.
“I really enjoyed that year,” said Carel Thomas, the Exiles scrum-half who was one of the standout players who won the plate in the Asia Sevens Series tournament in Dubai last month.
“It was my first year when I moved over to the Exiles to play in the uae Premiership [in XVs]. That year we did very well in the sevens tournament as well.”
“I think we stand a good chance this year. At the Exiles we have four players that represented the UAE in the Sevens Series, or who at least were in the set up, so I think we have a chance.”
“But sevens is a tricky game. One wrong bounce of the ball and you don’t get the opportunity again, but I do think we have a strong team this year and we could be capable of going through to the final.”
Dubai Rugby Sevens History in Pictures
An early Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament, started by the Dubai Exiles RFC. The tournament was birthed in 1970, when the host club, Dubai Exiles, invited sides to play a competition in rugby’s abridged format. The invitees included teams from the British armed forces, who were happy for the break from garrison duties in what was then the Trucial States. The Exiles were the leading force in the early years of Gulf rugby.
Dubai Exiles Rugby Sevens, December 1981. France have never won the Sevens. The closest they have got was when Les Bleus lost the 2011 final to England. But French hands have been on the Emirates International Trophy before, when Toulouse won the main competition in 1990.
The first Dubai sevens games were played on sand pitches.
Some people get wistful about the old days of playing on sand. Others only remember the pain. “It was like playing in flour with bits of brick in it,” Mike Jackson, a former Dubai Hurricanes player, said of the experience. “Then you would get nicks and cuts that would go septic.”
The tournament was played on sand up until 1995, when the pitches at the old Dubai Exiles ground were turfed thanks to huge investment by Emirates Airline. In the last final on sand in 1994, South Korea beat the Warblers 21-20.
Dubai was one of the legs of the new World Sevens Series formed in 1999. Even though both the event and the series have become increasingly formalised since, the best known faces are often to be seen with the amateur teams on the outside fields. Like in 2006, when the reigning world player of the year Dan Carter was waterboy for Stefan’s BHF.
The tournament relocated from its original home in Al Awir to a new purpose-built site further into the desert in 2008. The new Sevens Stadium played host to that year’s Sevens, and also staged the format’s World Cup in 2009.
Nobody has tasted success in the international tournament at the Sevens more often than coach Ben Ryan. The Londoner oversaw wins with England in 2010 and 2011, then with Fiji in 2013 and 2015.
Rarely have more stars shared a field at the Sevens than when union royalty J9 Legends faced rugby league all-stars Joining Jack in the Vets event in 2013. It pitted the likes of Carlos Spencer, Stephen Larkham and Waisale Serevi against Jason Robinson and Andy Farrell.
J9 Legends made the final that season, but were beaten by Xodus Steelers in a classic encounter on Pitch 1. It was memorable less for the match, as the emotional scenes after, when J9 captain Serevi pushed Joost van der Westhuizen, who was stricken by motor neuron disease, through a guard of honour.
A year earlier, in 2012, Joining Jack had a celebrity fanboy running on water for their players. Bradley Wiggins had recently won the Tour de France and Olympic Gold, and was days away from being named BBC Sports Personality of the Year. A knighthood was in the offing, too.
Joining Jack, a charity side that raises awareness of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, do a good line in celebrity fans. In 2015, Owen Farrell struck a notable figure on the sideline, while supporting father Andy in the Vets tournament.
One of the greats of England rugby, Maggie Alphonsi, played for Tribe 7s in the Invitational Open in 2014. “Maggie the Machine” was not the only World Cup-winner on the outside fields that season, either. Steve Thompson, the hooker for the 2003 champions England, played for Gulf Legends in the International Vets.
In 2015, former Scotland wing Thom Evans danced past a load of defenders to score a try for UR7s Wanderers in the International Open on Pitch 2. It was his first touch of the ball on his return to the game after five years out with a serious neck injury while on international duty.
Perhaps the most poignant victory in all 50 years of Dubai Sevens tournaments came in 2017, when Speranza 22 won the final of the International Invitational. The team had been set up in memory of Marcos Speranza, who had won the Gulf Under 19 title with Abu Dhabi Harlequins but later died in an air crash in his native Argentina.
The Al Maha team made history when they competed in the Gulf U18 Girls tournament by becoming the first all-Emirati female side to play at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Dubai Hurricanes’ bid for a hat-trick of Gulf Men’s League trophies will have to wait until next year. They won back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019.
The incredible 50-year journey of Dubai Rugby Sevens embodies the spirit of the city. Victor Besa / The National
This story was originally published on The National by Paul Radley.