Meet the women shaping rugby history in Saudi Arabia

Saudi women and girls are getting the opportunity to try rugby first-hand through workshops and register for training programs and games. (Nisar Illikkottil)
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Saudi women and girls are getting the opportunity to try rugby first-hand through workshops and register for training programs and games. (Nisar Illikkottil)
Aleya Abdullah Bamakhrama. (Nisar Illikkottil)
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Aleya Abdullah Bamakhrama. (Nisar Illikkottil)
Saudi women and girls are getting the opportunity to try rugby first-hand through workshops and register for training programs and games. (Nisar Illikkottil)
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Saudi women and girls are getting the opportunity to try rugby first-hand through workshops and register for training programs and games. (Nisar Illikkottil)
Aleya Abdullah Bamakhrama. (Nisar Illikkottil)
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Aleya Abdullah Bamakhrama. (Nisar Illikkottil)
Saudi women and girls are getting the opportunity to try rugby first-hand through workshops and register for training programs and games. (Nisar Illikkottil)
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Saudi women and girls are getting the opportunity to try rugby first-hand through workshops and register for training programs and games. (Nisar Illikkottil)
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Updated 14 January 2024
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Meet the women shaping rugby history in Saudi Arabia

Meet the women shaping rugby history in Saudi Arabia
  • In late 2023, the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation established a women’s department to increase female interest in the sport

RIYADH: The last five years have witnessed a remarkable rise in the participation of women in sports across Saudi Arabia.

Women’s departments in one sports federation after another have been established, aiming to increase grassroots participation in the short term, establish local competitions, and, in the long term, rub shoulders with the world’s best on the international stage.

The latest to set its sights on forming a competitive domestic scene is the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation. 

In late 2023 it established a women’s department to increase female interest in the sport, which, historically, was played by small communities of mostly male expatriates.

Today, Saudi women and girls get the opportunity to try the sport first-hand through workshops and register for training programs and games.  

Sami Smara, technical director at the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation, told Arab News: “We (now) have 41 women players and 20 girls U18 … in the Kingdom — they play only against each other.

“This February we will participate in the Arab (Rugby) Sevens tournament hosted in the Kingdom at Taif, it will (have) 10 men’s and eight women’s teams competing for the trophy. The U18’s will participate in (the) Asia Tournament in August and the senior(s) will compete this year in Asia Tournament (in) September and also at (the) next Dubai International Sevens tournament,” he continued.

Twenty-six-year-old Aleya Abdullah Bamakhrama, a health care administrator and ice hockey player, is one of the female players training.

“I’m so happy that I’m playing multi-sports. It’s helped me and I would like in the future to be a good professional player as well, in these two sports,” she said. 

By being on the rugby field, Bamakhrama hopes to combat societal stereotypes associated with the sport and encourage other women to get involved. 

“The Saudi society, they say, (rugby) is not for a female, it’s for men and no women should play,” she said. “But I’m proud to start playing rugby and I will prove that rugby, it’s suitable for women and men.

“I want everyone in my community to believe that women can play anything any sport at any time and can achieve a lot of goals,” Bamakhrama continued.

Ameera Saud Marghalani, a 17-year-old high school student, first picked up a rugby ball when the federation conducted a workshop at her school. 

“Me and my friends were sitting in class and our coach showed up,” she told Arab News. “We started passing the ball at the beginning just to get familiar with what rugby is. And then later on we started attending more classes, and now we’ve been training for four months.

“I think we can definitely prove a lot of people wrong since we do have a lot of support and great coaches,” Marghalani said. 

She echoes the sentiments of the rest of the players, who told Arab News that with the support system provided by the federation, from its board members to its coaches, they are ready to defy all odds.

“We definitely want to show everyone that we can make it in such a tough sport” Marghalani said. “I think there’s a great journey ahead of us really.”

Most of the female rugby training takes place in Riyadh at playing fields facilitated by Irqah Sports Stadium and Prince Nourah University.

Smara hopes that with more funding the federation will be able to expand the popular training programs to more cities outside of the capital. 


Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves
Updated 03 March 2024
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Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

NEWCASTLE: Criticism, at this level, is only ever just around the corner. One year you may be returning a club to the Champions League after two decades, the next some may be calling for change at the top. That’s the situation that’s faced Eddie Howe at Newcastle United in recent times.

A one-trick pony. The lack of Plan B. Howe has faced up to some tactical criticism from certain sections of the Newcastle fanbase in a drift from top four contenders to the fringes of the bottom half of the division in what has turned into a winter of discontent on Tyneside.

And in fairness, some of that criticism has been justified. However, when a tactical tweak was needed, Howe delivered, landing a blow to his critics by producing a compact, robust Newcastle setup that was far too much for opposite number Gary O’Neil — transforming a resurgent, on-the-rise Wolverhampton Wanderers’ bark in to a whimper at St. James’ Park.

Alexander Isak gave the hosts the lead on the break, while another counter goal by Anthony Gordon had the Magpies cruising at half-time. A late wondergoal from youngster Tino Livramento added a flourish in the dying embers.

Famed for their transition play, Wolves have torn teams apart in the Premier League on their rise. And getting caught by teams on the transition, has been Howe and Newcastle’s kryptonite during their winter struggles.

Answering that, Howe tweaked it, as Newcastle sat deeper, invited the pressure and surrendered possession wilfully. It worked wonders.

“We changed things tactically today. It was a big win,” he said after recording the Magpies’ first home win since December 16.

“We knew, being back at home, that we hadn’t won here for quite a while, certainly in 2024. Our home form has always been so good. Ever since I’ve come to the football club, even in the season when we stayed up and then making the top four in the following one, the home form was really the bedrock of all our success. So, to have our first wobble here was a concern. We’re delighted to win, it was a massive game for us.”

“It was a slight tweak from our normal way of playing. We analyze our opposition, like we do always, and I know there’s a lot of people that say we play the same way every week, but I can assure you that’s not the case. There’s always tweaks and little things we try to do to help us in our performance, and that was one today, to try to maybe play a slightly more transitional game.

“I still think we’re not quite where we were at times last year, and also at times this year, but I thought it was better. I thought we had a better physical look about us, with really good running capacity, highlighted by our first goal, which was really transitional. There were players running the full length of the pitch, with a real desire to score. I thought, individually, we looked better as well in that respect. As I’ve said many times, confidence can ebb and flow, from individuals and the team. But I thought toward the end of the game, we started to see the confidence flow back into the group, and the last ten to 15 minutes was really good.”

Newcastle have so often been starved of options when they’ve needed them, injuries to key players at key times has limited what the head coach can do off the bench. With just 12 games left, that situation is clearly easing — and it is no surprise to see Newcastle put in arguably their most impressive, coherent performance in 2024.

Turning to goalscorer Livramento as well as summer signing Harvey Barnes, coupled with Miguel Almiron, Lewis Miley and Elliot Anderson off the subs bench is as strong a group as Howe has been able to name for months. Arguably, the biggest impact of all, however, was getting Joe Willock back into the starting XI.

After 12 months of struggles, this was the first match the former Arsenal man has started since November. And what a difference his energy and legs gave to a United midfield that has lacked anything like it for so long.

Howe said: “Naturally, I think our midfield does have a different complexion with Willock in the team. I think he has different qualities, although I have to compliment Lewis Miley when he came on because that’s a difficult game situation for someone so young, but I thought he did really well.

“Joe does add a running and an athleticism that maybe we don’t have without him. I was delighted with his contribution. Yes, we’ve managed his game minutes, but it’s great that he’s come through three games and done really well.

“I thought he was (Bruno) was very good and had moments where he really showed his class. When he’s at the top of his game, for me, there’s no one better in playing the role that he does. I was really pleased with his impact in the first goal because it’s a full length of the pitch counter-attack and he’s had to make up a lot of yards to get a vital contribution to that goal. That lets me know that, mentally, he’s in a good place and, physically, he’s in a good place too after a three-game week with extra-time. I was really pleased with that part of his game.”


Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers

Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers
Updated 03 March 2024
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Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers

Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers
  • Details of the trial were believed to have been close to publication by the International
  • Football Association Board (IFAB) last month Stronger enforcement on time-wasting goalkeepers was the major development to emerge from the meeting

LONDON: A controversial sin bin trial featuring blue cards was absent from the latest changes made by football’s lawmakers to improve player behavior on Saturday.
It was reported in February that blue cards were set to be part of a trial of sin bins at higher levels of the professional game.
Details of the trial were believed to have been close to publication by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) last month.
But the negative response to the proposal from Premier League managers like Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Tottenham’s Ange Postecoglou played a role in the trial details being delayed.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Friday that he “wasn’t aware” blue cards were intended to be used in the trial and said his organization was “completely opposed” to the idea.
Sin-bin yellow cards will continue to be trialled at grassroots level instead.
“If the trials at the lower levels work, of course the conversation continues throughout the pyramid,” said the English Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham after IFAB’s annual general meeting near Loch Lomond, Scotland.
“I don’t think that was ever the intention for the trial to start in the Premier League.”
Stronger enforcement on time-wasting goalkeepers was the major development to emerge from the meeting.
Fans could be encouraged to join in countdowns on goalkeepers holding on to the ball too long.
In competitions taking part in the trial, goalkeepers will be able to hold onto the ball for eight seconds and the sanction for holding on too long would be a corner or a throw-in in line with the penalty spot, rather than an indirect free-kick.
Under current guidelines, ‘keepers are supposed to only hold onto the ball for a maximum of six seconds, but the rule is rarely strictly enforced.
The other two trials approved by IFAB are designed to help referees regulate player behavior.
Referees now have the option to create captain-only zones and cooling-off areas in the event of mass confrontations.


Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner

Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner
Updated 02 March 2024
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Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner

Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner
  • Nunez marked his return from injury by heading home nine minutes into stoppage-time at the City Ground
  • “It happened exactly the same in the first half didn’t it? Exactly the same, just the other way round,” Klopp said

NOTTINGHAM, United Kingdom: Jurgen Klopp claimed Darwin Nunez’s controversial late winner against Nottingham Forest was legitimate as Liverpool moved four points clear at the top of the Premier League on Saturday.
Nunez marked his return from injury by heading home nine minutes into stoppage-time at the City Ground.
But the Uruguay forward’s decisive contribution left Forest furious after referee Paul Tierney had stopped play before the build-up to the goal for an apparent head injury to Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konate.
Tierney blew with Forest in possession on the edge of Liverpool’s area and after Konate had quickly recovered, the official dropped the ball to Reds goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, who then started the move that led to Nunez’s goal.
“It happened exactly the same in the first half didn’t it? Exactly the same, just the other way round,” Klopp said.
“I accepted it would happen like that because it happened in the first half. If it didn’t happen in the first half, I would have asked the question as well.
“I would assume that’s the rule, I don’t know. But because it happened twice and got handled exactly the same, I don’t really see their reasons for a discussion.”
Earlier in the game, Tierney halted a Liverpool attack after Forest captain Ryan Yates was felled by Harvey Elliott’s shot and play resumed with goalkeeper Matz Sels taking possession.
“I understand 100 percent the excitement and the anger of Nottingham, of course, they fought for everything. But it happened twice the same and was consistent,” Klopp said.
Nunez’s winner secured Liverpool their first league victory at the City Ground in almost 40 years.
The priceless success by the banks of the River Trent piled pressure on second-placed Manchester City and third-placed Arsenal, who play on Sunday and Monday against Manchester United and Sheffield United respectively.
Klopp admitted it had been a huge effort from his injury-hit squad, who have registered six straight wins in all competitions, including last Sunday’s League Cup final win over Chelsea.
“Four games in 11 days, come on. Five in 15,” Klopp said. “It’s really tough. With our squad situation it’s super-tough and how the boys fought through that is really special.
“The fourth game was the toughest. It was an unbelievable effort the boys put in. A proper, proper shift.
“If you had asked me 12 days ago if it was possible to win all four games, I’d have said no.”


Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved

Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved
Updated 02 March 2024
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Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved

Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved
  • “I’ve been told — I didn’t hear, to be honest. It’s difficult for me to understand,” the Argentine coach said
  • Chelsea rescued a point on Pochettino’s 52nd birthday when Axel Disasi headed home Cole Palmer’s cross

LONDON: Chelsea fans turned on Mauricio Pochettino as they watched their team labor to draw at west London rival Brentford 2-2 in the English Premier League on Saturday.
The Blues were leading through Nicolas Jackson’s 35th-minute header but were pegged back by Mads Roerslev’s close-range strike in the 50th.
When Yoane Wissa put Brentford ahead with a spectacular overhead kick in the 69th, the away fans began singing the name of former manager Jose Mourinho as well as calling for Pochettino to go.
“I’ve been told — I didn’t hear, to be honest. It’s difficult for me to understand,” the Argentine coach said.
“But it’s normal, we were losing the game 2-1 and they expressed their frustration. I am one of the ones responsible, I’m the coach.”
Chelsea rescued a point on Pochettino’s 52nd birthday when Axel Disasi headed home Cole Palmer’s cross.
The point left Chelsea languishing in 11th place in another dismal league campaign and the first season under Pochettino.
“I was asked before if I feel the love from the fans — no,” Pochettino said. “I’m not worried — we need to accept this relationship. You win your relationship through winning games.
“I will continue to work and try to change this perception. We need to manage some reality. We are working really hard to try to win games, the team is fighting. If it doesn’t work and the fans are disappointed, I need to respect their opinion.”


Max Verstappen cruises to ‘unbelievable’ Red Bull one-two in Bahrain Grand Prix

Max Verstappen cruises to ‘unbelievable’ Red Bull one-two in Bahrain Grand Prix
Updated 02 March 2024
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Max Verstappen cruises to ‘unbelievable’ Red Bull one-two in Bahrain Grand Prix

Max Verstappen cruises to ‘unbelievable’ Red Bull one-two in Bahrain Grand Prix
  • Verstappen delivered the 12th ‘hat-trick’ of his career leaving only the seven-time champions Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton ahead on 22 and 19 trebles respectively

SAKHIR, Bahrain: Three-time world champion Max Verstappen began his title defense in flawless fashion on Saturday when he guided his Red Bull team to a crushing one-two triumph, ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez, at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
In a statement of emphatic superiority, the 26-year-old Dutchman came home 22.5 seconds clear of Perez, who started from fifth, to ease some of the pressure on team boss Christian Horner.
Pole sitter Verstappen held off the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc to lead into the first corner, and it was business as usual from there to the flag as he enjoyed the perfect start to his quest for a fourth consecutive title.
By claiming the 33rd pole of his career, fastest lap and race win, Verstappen delivered the 12th ‘hat-trick’ of his career leaving only the seven-time champions Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton ahead on 22 and 19 trebles respectively.
It was Verstappen’s eighth successive win, his 55th race victory and 99th podium finish as Red Bull dominated an uneventful race on a cold evening at Sakhir’s Bahrain International Circuit.
it also extended his run as championship leader to 40 races since the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix.
“Unbelievable!” said Verstappen.
“I think today went better than expected and we had a lot of pace. It was super-enjoyable to drive and we stayed out of trouble. It’s a good start to the year — it couldn’t be better.
“It was a lot of fun. And it’s very special to have days like today as it doesn’t happen often, when everything is all ok with the car. It felt great today.”
Team-mate Perez praised the team.
“The team definitely had good momentum. We’ve got to keep it up now for the coming weekends,” he said.
“It was the maximum we could achieve — a tricky race with the tire management and plenty to learn from the race.”
Carlos Sainz, whose seat at Ferrari is to be taken by Hamilton next year, finished a pugnacious third ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc, who profited from a rare error by Mercedes George Russell in the closing laps.
“I felt really good today and had good pace. We had a clear plan and it worked well,” said Sainz.
“I managed my tires and then I could overtake a few cars on the way to the podium. A good step forward compared to last year.”
Russell finished fifth ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris, Hamilton in the second Mercedes, Oscar Piastri in the second McLaren and the Aston Martin duo two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll.
After days of speculation, Red Bull boss Horner arrived hand in hand with his wife, former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell — a show of unity following the release on Thursday of a cache of alleged messages from him to a female member of staff.
That had come just 24 hours after he had been cleared by Red Bull’s internal investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior.
On track, the team showed no apparent distraction as Verstappen topped qualifying to secure his 33rd pole position — and lead the pack when the lights went out in cold, dry conditions in the desert.
The Dutchman made a clean start and led from lights to flag.
When he came in for his final set of new softs at the end of lap 37, he re-joined with a 17-second cushion ahead of Perez.
It was a commanding performance from the champion, decorated with a fastest lap of 1:32.608 as he cruised through the final 16 laps: a lap that was fully 1.5 seconds quicker than any other.
“Look, it’s been the best possible start to the season,” said Horner afterwards.
“Very clinical from the team and a well-executed race. The perfect start.”
Asked about his own position and the confidence that Red Bull’s owners have in him, Horner was bullish.
“Do I have their backing? Absolutely, yes,” he said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”