DAMMAM: Amid football’s World Cup hype and frenzy in the region, Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd Stadium saw a small audience gather on Friday, Nov. 18 to celebrate the first-ever rugby tournament in the city.
Sami Amin, the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation board member and communications committee head, was excited that the landmark event, the Rugby 10s and 7s Tournament, was hosted in his hometown.
“This is the first time that the rugby tournament has been held in Dammam and it’s very exciting for me, as I grew up here. We are a relatively new federation, and we’re currently building up our processes and governance in order to ensure that the sport is played, most importantly, safely. So we hope that you continue to watch and come down to the field sometime and take part,” Amin told Arab News.
His fellow SARF board member, Khalid Al-Mansour, who is also the head of the coaching and officiating committee, told Arab News he was hopeful progress could be made to improve standards. “For all of Saudi Arabia, we have around 10 teams, we need to have in each team an approved rugby coach (at) level one, then we move to level two, then after that to level three by 2030 God willing.”
On the lush green grass of the stadium, the players, whether on the field or cheering from the sidelines, refused to have their dedication and enthusiasm tempered by the glaring sun, dusty Dammam wind, and sweltering heat.
The Riyadh Falcons became the first winners of the sevens competition after winning their three matches, while the Riyadh Scorpions emerged victorious in the 10s contest.
Fahad Al-Mashaaly, a new player on the Saudi national team, said he was excited to have played, win or lose, because it allowed him to improve his game. It was also encouraging to see many players turn up to participate.
“Our team, it’s all Saudis — and from different places. We have someone from the south of Saudi, from the north, also from Yanbu, Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam,” he told Arab News.
Fawaz Alfageeh, captain of the sevens national team, was also happy to share the experience with other players.
“We are having so much fun here,” he said. “Thanks to the Ministry of Sports for giving us the opportunity to play on a professional football league pitch, finally. I mean, you can see everybody is just having fun enjoying being in touch. This is the spirit of rugby, and that’s what we’re going to show out to the people out there.”
“I’m glad to represent my country and it’s an honor, it’s a great feeling,” he said. “You play for the country, for the people, for your family. It’s just a great feeling, I cannot even express (how I feel).”
Sami Smara, the head coach of the national team echoed this sentiment.
“What we tried to do today, this period and moving forward, is basically to emphasize (participation through) competition, to bring the teams together, especially after COVID,” he told Arab News.
He said the Saudi federation wants to replicate the successful introduction of the game in neighboring UAE, where women and girls are well-versed in rugby. He is confident this will happen in the Kingdom once the game is introduced at schools and clubs.
On Friday, the only women at the game were those seen cheering enthusiastically from the dusty blue seats in the stands.
Natalia Thomas was there to watch her husband play, with her son sitting beside her. “It’s my first time watching rugby live here in Saudi Arabia. I come from Cape Town in South Africa where rugby is really popular. I am excited about this because my family and I love watching the games and my husband loves playing it.
“And recently my son has also started playing, he’s just turned 11. The game in both countries is very similar. I’ve always loved the energy and positivity — it is real community spirit,” she said.
Razan Alghamdi also came to support her husband who was playing a match. “My husband introduced me to touch rugby; he played it in Aramco, it was a family thing, women, kids young in age and old people played, so I joined them,” she said.
“At the beginning, it was confusing but later it started to become really easy. I’m one of the few Saudi women who like to play, there are not a lot who are aware of the game. Rugby in general in Saudi is really a fun and interesting game.”
It is the SARF’s mission to attract people like Alghamdi, whether they play touch rugby or the traditional full-contact game.
“Rugby is the fastest-growing sport amongst women, specifically, around the world. And our job as the federation is to help grow the participation of Saudi players across all age levels and both genders,” said Amin.
“It’s an intense sport and requires teamwork and strength and speed. But most importantly, it requires participation. So the more people who participate the greater (the) sport becomes.”