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The Dubai Sevens has undergone some major changes since 1970. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: From its humble roots of being played on sand by British servicemen in 1970, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, which turns 50 this weekend, is now one of the biggest and longest running rugby tournaments in the world, least of all the longest running sporting event in the UAE.

The first club, Dubai Exiles, was formed in 1968, and used to play on a sand pitch near the old Ramada Hotel in Bur Dubai, which was bound with oil and bitumen to paint the lines. However, one day a telegraph pole appeared in the middle of their pitch overnight, and so the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former Ruler of Dubai, agreed to gift them a new plot in Al Aweer on one condition.

“Land was awarded back then on the pretence that you would develop it and use it to sell Dubai to the world,” said the late Jim Lees — former Exiles Chairman — in a 2011 interview with Gulf News.

With their new home neighbouring the now-no-more Country Club and Darjeeling Cricket Club, Exiles went about inviting international teams — mainly British Army regiments to begin with — to play an annual tournament.

Land was awarded back then on the pretence that you would develop it and use it to sell Dubai to the world.

- The late Jim Lees | Former Exiles Chairman

A handful of spectators would watch the action sitting on the back of lorries. But Exiles would eventually boast among their playing ranks specialists in every field from law to engineering and accountancy, with whom they could develop a clubhouse and concrete grandstand, either on a shoestring budget or for free, thanks to their contacts in the local construction industry.

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Burly Bahraini forward John Fidler holds the ball during a maul in the 1983 match against Dubai Exiles. The Exiles beat the Gulf rugby champions Bahrain 9-4. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

To balance the books, players would also queue up outside Rashid Hospital to give blood, splitting the Dh200 proceeds with the club.

With this, the club and competition grew international acclaim, drawing crowds of 15,000 that now hit over 50,000 a day.

So much so, that in 1996 the International Rugby Board (IRB — now known as World Rugby) came to inspect the ground to discuss the possibility of hosting the quarter-final of the Sevens World Cup there.

Emirates Airline, already a supporter of the game, came on board fully as title sponsor, once the inspection passed with flying colours, and the quarter-final headlined the regular Exiles Sevens event that year.

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The new venue at the Sevens has helped the event become a global occasion. Image Credit: Megan Hirons

The Exiles continued to invite teams and largely organise the tournament, which turned into a leg of the Sevens World Series in 1999, from the bottom-up, while the IRB controlled the main event.

But in 2005 Lees quit as chairman and the Exiles land was acquired for the development of the Meydan project. During this time, Emirates had already begun work on their current Sevens facility on Al Ain Road with the view to hosting the Rugby Sevens World Cup in 2009 and naturally the Seven World Series moved there, where there are now eight grass pitches surrounding the main stadium fit for thousands of games to be played in every category over the three-day event held every December.

“It’s incredible how Dubai has been supportive of this sort of thing,” said Gary Chapman, President of Group Services and Dnata at Emirates Group. “Right from the beginning I think Dubai understood that it was important for the expats to have a community and it also recognised that from a Dubai Inc. perspective, rugby was a very valuable sporting proposition.”

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Action from a game at the Dubai Exiles Rugby Club in 1987. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Long before the golf and the tennis you had rugby, said Chapman. “And it is now without a doubt the best rugby sevens tournament in the world. What we have created in Dubai is a festival of rugby; we realised we were the guardians of what was built by people who came in before us and we built on those values and made it better.”

Perhaps the event’s legacy going forward is the fact the UAE now has an Emirati, Qais Al Dhalai, installed as the head of the Asian Rugby.

And it is now without a doubt the best rugby sevens tournament in the world. What we have created in Dubai is a festival of rugby.

- Gary Champman | President of Group Services and Dnata at Emirates Group

“One of the main factors [in me becoming president] is the country I come from and the success of the Dubai Sevens,” said Al Dhalai.

Sevens’ success as a whole, helped by Dubai’s involvement, also saw it become an Olympic sport in 2016, which encouraged the break-up of the GCC Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU) collective into separate member states, so that Gulf countries alone like the UAE could one day qualify and participate in the new Olympic event.

One of the main factors [in me becoming president] is the country I come from and the success of the Dubai Sevens.

- Qais Al Dhalai | Head of Asian Rugby

Ten years on after the formation of the UAE Rugby Federation, with Qais at the helm, the UAE now has 100,000 players (47 per cent female) throughout local government schools with the view to reach the Olympics after the sport became part of the curriculum.

“This has grown the sport from being expatriate to indigenous as well, and that will only ensure the event becomes more inclusive enabling its growth to continue for the next 50 years and more,” Al Dhalai added.

Timeline

1970: first sevens tournament held

1989: First international golf event comes to the UAE — the Desert Classic

1993: First international tennis event begins in the UAE — the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

1996: Quarter-finals of Sevens World Cup come to Dubai

1999: Dubai becomes part of the Sevens World Series

2008: Sevens Stadium opens

2009: Dubai hosts Rugby Sevens World Cup

2012: Dubai becomes first to host a men’s and women’s World Series event together

2019: Dubai Rugby Sevens turns 50

2026: Dubai plans to bid for the Sevens World Cup

WHAT IS THE DUBAI SEVENS?

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Image Credit: Supplied

The Dubai Sevens is an annual rugby sevens and social event held at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai, UAE. Now in its 50th year, the event has come a long way since its humble beginnings back in 1970 and is the longest-running sports event in the country.

There are four tournaments going on at the Sevens this weekend, namely the World Rugby Men’s Sevens Series, the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, Rugby Invitation Tournament, and Netball Invitation Tournament.

Dubai is the first leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series.

Sixteen teams compete in the men’s tournament, split into four pools of four teams each.

The two top teams in each pool advance to the quarter-final knockout rounds, and the bottom two move to the challenge bracket.

In the women’s series, 12 teams compete for the title. Both the men’s and women’s finals will be on Saturday.

Up to 100,000 fans are expected at The Sevens over the course of the weekend.

The tournament’s move to that venue in 2008 broke the World Series single-day attendance record in its first year with over 50,000 fans appearing on the first day of the tournament.

New Zealand and South Africa hold the record of most wins in the flagship men’s tournament with six triumphs each. England have four and Fiji two.

The 16 teams competing in the men’s tournament are Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, Fiji, France, Japan, Ireland, Kenya, New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, United States and Wales.

The 12 teams competing in the women’s event are Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Fiji, France, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Spain and United States.