UAE rugby

‘We want to see UAE Rugby teams competing at the Olympics’

There were many great stories out of the Rugby World Cup, which brought the sport’s global elite together in France and wrapped with South Africa nabbing the prestigious William Webb-Ellis trophy.

One was Portugal — not a traditional rugby nation — making their debut at the tournament and recording an emotional first victory over Fiji. 

The UAE is at an even more embryonic stage than Portugal in its rugby evolution but, for the past decade, former professional Apollo Perelini has been working to create a rugby infrastructure designed to last. 

As executive director and head of high performance at the UAE Rugby Federation, his role goes far beyond developing the national sides; he has spent significant time designing pathways for players and coaches from the grassroots level up. 

When Perelini arrived at UAE Rugby, there were just two men’s national teams; there are now nine men’s and women’s teams from U18s up to senior level, including two all-Emirati sides. 

UAE Rugby
Executive director and head of high performance at the UAE Rugby Federation, Apollo Perelini/Image courtesy UAE Rugby

“Rugby here has grown astronomically over the last few years,” Perelini tells Livehealthy. “Part of my job has been about participation and growing the game more but also it has been about improving the national team. 

“We talk a lot about leaving a legacy and how we grow the game. We want a pathway for kids to strive for and that has been a key aim. What has really helped is that the expertise in schools and local clubs has really grown.”

Perelini has pushed hard to increase the number of specialist rugby coaches in the UAE, particularly as schools now almost universally offer rugby as part of their physical education curriculum. 

“When I arrived in the UAE in 2008, I was one of probably two real specialist coaches. Previously, there were a lot of dads volunteering their time, which is lovely and amazing, but they don’t have the expertise to really develop players.

“Now we see lots of schools and clubs have a director of rugby, specialists who are genuinely qualified to coach and develop kids. 

“It makes those schools more attractive and also means that parents with talented children are more likely to stay in the UAE long term, rather than sending their kids away to rugby academies overseas. Part of this is also the possibility that these kids have to represent the UAE.

“Our development program with Emirati schools has been amazing too. Through our relationship with the Ministry of Education, we run festivals throughout the year and we’ve put around 200,000 Emirati kids through these programmes. 

“It is their success that led to the development of our all-Emirati men’s and women’s teams; these are kids who have tried the sport, fell in love with it, and continued to play it.” 

For those wondering whether rugby might be a good sport for their children to try, Perelini is unambiguous in his encouragement. 

“Rugby really teaches you how to push through and I’m honest with parents when I tell them it isn’t a contact sport, it is a collision sport that will test you mentally and physically,” he explains. 

UAE Rugby
Image courtesy UAE Rugby

“I love rugby because it gives you a set of behaviors that are really important in life. Discipline, resilience and respect are values that are associated with our sport. There’s obviously a lot of teamwork and camaraderie too.

The current Rugby World Cup certainly provides a useful entry point to rugby for passive sports fans and Perelini admits he has never seen as much interest in the tournament in the UAE, something that he feels is representative of the game’s growing stature in the Emirates. 

“I’ve noticed it more compared to other World Cups,” Perelini says. “Our rugby community is bigger now than it has ever been but also we have seen places screen matches that probably wouldn’t have four years ago. 

“There have been some big activations around the tournament and it is great to see interest in the sport growing.”

This November, Perelini’s men’s and women’s sides will play in Olympic qualifying and if they make it to Paris 2024, the New Zealander says it could be a watershed moment for the sport in the UAE. 

“Obviously we can dream of the Rugby World Cup but we need to take things one step at a time. We are still an amateur sport in the UAE so we need to get a professional arm first; that means some kind of full-time commitment. I think the Olympics is a more realistic goal for us right now. 

“If that happens, it could change the world of rugby for us in the UAE, even if we were to get close to qualifying. We have been well-supported by the UAE sports authorities and government so far but Olympic qualification would take us to another level. 

“It would be a massive stride to be recognized as a key sport within the UAE, which in turn leads to more funding.”

Livehealthymag.com is for every body and mind in the UAE. This magazine is all about moderation, making small changes, little additions and the odd subtraction.

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