By James Fitzgerald
Refereeing rugby in the Arabian Gulf is full of surprises. Some are pleasant, others not so much.
The first surprise is the heat. Well, I suppose it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that at the beginning of September when the season starts the temperatures are well over 40 degrees, regardless of whether you play at day or night. But even though your mind might be prepared for it, your body will still be shocked to the point of threatening to cease functioning unless you find a shady area to curl up and die.
Let’s just say Law 5.7 (g) is one we know well and we’re not afraid to use it.
Another surprise is the amount of rugby that is out here. Although mostly the domain of expats from the world’s foremost rugby-playing nations, the administrators of rugby in the gulf are trying to evangelise by introducing the game into schools attended by locals, with mixed results.
But there is certainly no shortage of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Japies, French (in fact, there is a club based in Dubai called the French Frogs), Yanks, Canucks, Paddies and South Sea islanders to make up the numbers.
Currently, I am on the Gulf Premiership panel which means I travel around the region reffing games in places as exotic as Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman as well as in the United Arab Emirates from Abu Dhabi through Dubai and up to Sharjah. There are also teams in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon that we help out if they are short a ref, which is most of the time. This is not exactly rugby heartland but it does afford one the chance to travel to some pretty interesting places, which beats a trip to Edenderry on a wet Sunday afternoon in November.
Another surprise was turning up to Kuwait Nomads Rugby Club and being told this barren, grassless wasteland was the pitch. Sand was falling out of me for a week afterwards. The post-match function in the dry state of Kuwait was interesting – never underestimate the ingenuity of man, particularly when that man is a thirsty rugby player. What they do is they buy crates of alcohol-free beer which is freely on sale at the supermarket, add yeast and basically reverse the process, leaving the mixture to ferment in five gallon drums for a few weeks. The result is a powerful and tooth-curling home brew that makes you grateful for the relatively liberal regime in the UAE.
Being part of ARFU (the IRB’s regional association for Asia) also brings its opportunities and in the two years I have been here I have been sent on refereeing appointments to Sri Lanka (twice), Thailand and Hong Kong and I am currently working towards getting a place on the IRB Asia Five Nations panel that could bring some tier two international experience. We also provide the TJs and in-goal judges for the IRB Sevens Series in Dubai.
I still get to watch the Magners League and Heineken Cup matches on TV here and I have to admit I get a little pang of homesickness when I see the crowds huddled and half-cut in a freezing Thomond Park, Sportsground or Ravenhill as the ARLB’s finest stand firm against the wind, rain and spectators’ abuse. With the temperatures hitting a pleasant and always-sunny 30 degrees here these days, perhaps my hankering for Leinster rugby is the biggest surprise of all.