We have a special Choosday Chat with Dubai Exiles departing Chairman, Mike Wolff.
Born: Limavady in Northern Ireland – yes I just got my post Brexit Irish passport!
Your home club: Several – the last club I played for was Tokyo Crusaders before moving to Dubai Exiles.
Position: Lock or back row
Level of rugby played: My old regiment took rugby very seriously and so I played rugby in the British Army for 12 years with some far more talented players there than I ever was. That aside local club rugby wherever I lived in the world.
“I hope that the UAERF can find a way to be far more supportive of club rugby”
Mike Wolff and his family are leaving Dubai after a fifteen year stint in the desert. Wolff, a partner of Control Risks and Chairman of the Dubai Exiles reflects upon his time with the Premiership club in our Choosday Chat special before he makes his move over to start a new chapter in his life in Washington DC, USA.
Do you have any nicknames?
None that can be published online on a family website…
How long have you been involved with the Exiles?
I’ve been involved with the Exiles for fifteen and a half years! I moved here from Tokyo knowing just one bloke whose three sons all played at the Exiles mini and junior rugby section in 2004 – he dragged me along to help coach and the rest is history. [His eldest son now plays for Wasps, England 7s and is currently on loan to Griquas in South Africa playing Currie Cup rugby. Clearly I am taking as much credit for him as I possibly can!].
How has the Exiles transformed as a club since you have been involved?
We now offer more sports than just rugby compared to when I started, namely cricket, netball and touch rugby. We had to move from our old home of forty years at Al Awir to the Sevens Stadium in 2008, and last year we opened our new clubhouse which took us five years to get through planning and construction. Naturally I think it is now the best clubhouse facility in the Middle East!
What has been your best memory during your time with Exiles?
There are many. Winning the UAE Premiership twice in the last three years, winning the Dubai 7s for the first time in 11 years 2 years ago, winning the West Asia Premiership three years ago, losing the West Asia Premiership with the last kick of the match this season in the lion’s den that is Bahrain RFC, the tremendous success of our Under 18 girls rugby squad over the last four years, several of our Mini & Youth alumni going on to become professional players, our 50th anniversary ball, the growth and delivery every year (with Dubai Hurricanes) of the HSBC Dubai Mini & Youth Rugby Festival, and working with great people at the club who have in turn become the closest of friends.
If you could change one thing about UAE Rugby, what would it be?
I hope that the UAERF can find a way to be far more supportive of club rugby. Without that, UAE rugby will never be what it truly could be. I would love to see more Emirati involvement at the clubs. There is no good reason for that not to be happening more than it is now.
What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced during your time with the club?
Rebuilding the club’s self-confidence and sense of identity after we lost our old facility to the bulldozers in 2008. It isn’t easy watching your home that you built over many decades, and where the Dubai 7s was created, being levelled.
Where do you see UAE rugby heading in the next five years?
The club game is definitely facing some headwinds. There needs to be (in my opinion) fewer but larger clubs that are consequently more resilient to economic downturns and transient playing populations. In the time I have been Chairman I have seen several UAE rugby clubs fold or miss seasons, primarily due to external pressures. If clubs only focus on their own survival as opposed to what is the best model for the game here, then the quality of the offering will steadily dilute and become very average. If we want to continue to have a high quality Premiership offering, then that costs money for the right resources to deliver it – and nine clubs in one small city (Dubai) all fighting for sponsors and members makes no sense. The club game needs to be focused on building from the top down and not the other way around. Equally we also need to be more rigorous as to what defines a “rugby club” – I’m afraid I personally don’t believe we should be encouraging new clubs that do not have as a minimum both a Senior section and a Mini & Youth section to be part of the rugby scenery here. We need to be offering pathways within clubs for players from five years old to 1st XVs and that can deliver a full family experience.
If you could be one of the players, who would it be and why?
Durandt Gerber, our 1st XV captain from last season and former Italy A fly-half. Irritatingly talented, annoyingly humble, the ladies love him, he’s a great role model for all the kids and most importantly he is a thoroughly decent human being. (He still missed that big kick in Bahrain though…)
What’s been your proudest moment as Chairman of Exiles?
On the pitch it would be our Director of Rugby – Jacques Benade and the 1st XV delivering the UAE Premiership and West Asia Premiership double three years ago. When I took over as Chairman, just after we exited Al Awir, the senior end of the club was in a mess. We had eight players turn up for our first men’s training session eight years ago, so to do that in five years was amazing. Off the pitch we have helped a number of our members who have faced some very tough personal situations – family bereavement, serious illness, sudden unemployment and so on. I’d like to think as a Club we always try to “do the right thing” when our members need help. I also think that together with some like minded fellow Chairmen we have recently started to make real progress, delivering a more sustainable game, and a safer and better insured playing environment that hopefully continues to attract players of all shapes and sizes.
Who has the worst dress sense in club?
Any of our senior players that speak Afrikaans as their first language – fifty shades of khaki anyone!? That said, some of my flowery linen shirts have incurred fines, so I am in no position to judge.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I spent three years working in Tokyo, the home of karaoke. I like to think my renditions of Rhinestone Cowboy by Glenn Campbell, and various Neil Diamond efforts will be sorely missed. I suspect I am wrong however.
What was the last takeaway you ordered?
It was a Chinese meal, three weeks ago and it gave me a nasty parasite for two weeks. Lesson learned.
Who would be your three dream dinner guests?
Sir Winston Churchill, Ricky Gervais and my Grandfather who died in 1956 – he survived three years in the trenches in WW1 and inspired me to join the British Army. I wish I’d known him.
How’s life been for you in Dubai and what will you miss most about it?
I had a migrant life as a soldier and businessman all around the world before I came here; Dubai has been the longest time I have lived in one place and that tells you something. I am heading off to Washington DC for an amazing professional and personal opportunity, but I will miss the people in Dubai, the Exiles and my work colleagues hugely. The quality of life here is great, the region offers wonderful travel opportunities, and the country is a marvellous example of how a different style of leadership can create a multi-cultural, safe and tolerant society. As the world seems to be polarising hard these days, such a model should perhaps be admired and emulated in my humble opinion.
For someone looking to join the Exiles, how would you describe the club culture to them?
It is very much a proper rugby club where great memories can be made with great people. The more you put into helping others at the Club the more you will get out of it. Once an Exile, always an Exile.
Exiles Director of Rugby, Jacques Benade gives thanks to Mike saying;
“We are very sad to lose Mike, our chairman at Dubai Exiles. A very passionate and influential figure fighting to get the best for expat rugby in the UAE. Mike is passionate about rugby and was always working to get the rugby played here in the UAE at the highest competitive level possible. The work Mike has done at the Exiles, the hours he’s put in to build the club as one of the best clubs in the West Asia and UAE Premiership, not just at senior level but also at mini and youth, will leave a legacy that hopefully everyone will be able to build on.”
General Manager, John Ebbitt had also had this to say;
“Mike has an indomitable passion for the Dubai Exiles and for rugby in the UAE. He has worked tirelessly to safeguard the club’s future and the Dubai Exiles status as one of the top rugby clubs in the Middle East.”
Club Captain, DuRandt Gerber said;
“Mike is an honest person, a lover of the game that just wants to see the game grow. He’s a true club man.”