• Sat. Nov 26th, 2022

Islamic Solidarity Games to host 130 Saudi athletes in Turkey

ByMary M. Ward

Aug 3, 2022

DHAHRAN: Ali Aldajani would never have thought that one day he would become known in his country as ‘the rugby guy’.
As president of the Saudi Rugby Federation, the 29-year-old has fond memories of his early years in the game and is proud of the importance the sport places on him today.
Growing up in the Kingdom, Aldajani has always been an athlete. He played football, tennis, basketball and competed in track and field events. When he moved to Canada at the age of 14, he decided to immerse himself in a contact sport. Since his school didn’t have an American football team, he decided to try rugby.
After four months of training, he began to lose interest in the game – until he played his first match.
After that he became addicted to the sport and the community behind it. He gave up his other sports to focus on rugby and when he returned to the Kingdom after completing his studies, he decided to stick with it.
He told Arab News: “When I came back in 2019, at the time I was playing with Bahrain rugby, semi-professionally, and I heard that the Saudi rugby committee had been disbanded.
“I was approached by someone who works with the Olympic committee to take on the role of chairman and at the time I was 26. I really wasn’t sure what I was capable of or what I could do, but I just knew I loved the sport, so I decided to give it a try,” he said. -he declares.
Expats and Saudis have been playing rugby in private compounds after work since the 1970s. Aldajani said the majority of them were businessmen, lawyers and other professionals.
“If you look at Saudi Arabia’s standing in any sport in the Gulf Cooperation Council, we probably have the biggest ratio of nationals to non-nationals. When you look at other countries like UAE and Kuwait, a lot of those teams, most of the population is expatriate based,” he added.
Rugby union was brought to the Kingdom by British expatriates in the mid-20th century. In 2010, the Kingdom won its first-ever international victory in a rugby competition. Initially, it was a mix of expatriates and Saudi players. In 2012, a national team – consisting of Saudi players only – took part in the West Asia 7s competition in the United Arab Emirates and finished third overall. And in 2014, the country participated in the Asian Games in South Korea.
Aldajani’s SARF board is made up mostly of Saudis, but people with international experience.
Amal Al-Grafi is the Managing Director, Dr Hadeel Ramadan Bakhsh leads the Women’s Rugby Committee and Lojain Alharbi chairs the Finance Committee. The Communications, Grassroots Sports, Player and Coach and Referee Welfare Committees are led by Sami Amin, Mansour Aldehaiman, Waleed Yousef and Khalid Al-Mansour respectively, while Patrick Raupach is an advisor to the board of administration and head of the competitions committee.
While the majority of players are men, great efforts are made to encourage women and girls to take up the sport.
Aldajani said: “Women’s rugby is a very big priority for us, starting with middle school and high school kids – there are clubs here that are specifically for kids under eight, between two and four years old. , and up to 12. So it works pretty strong.
“Our strategy as a federation was to select a few schools that had a mix of Saudi and expatriate children, the reason being that expatriate children, or their parents, will most likely have been exposed to the sport back home. So convincing them to playing would be much less difficult.
“And because they’re supposed to sell tickets, now the kids want to participate with their friends, and they know it excites them. It is also something new,” he added.
The Federation’s Training and Education Committee focuses on developing individuals and players to become match officials, first aiders or coaches for children, adults and even professionals.
Aldajani pointed out that the close-knit nature of the rugby community meant many former players ended up getting involved in coaching or helping out in other ways.
“You have a population of players who are engaged beyond retirement age. We focus on playing fifteen and sevens. Sevens is a very fast game involving a lot of sprints. Most people take their retirement around 28 or 29, but some continue until 34. But at 35 the bones start to hurt and break,” he said.
The main positives of the game, he noted, were its inclusiveness and culture based on honor, integrity, respect, discipline and teamwork.
According to Guinness World Records, the oldest international rugby player was UK-born Colin Stanley, who played for Saudi Arabia against Jordan in 2017, aged 58.
Expats in the Kingdom will always be key members of any side, but more and more Saudis are keen to join.
“We have the sustainability model where we can always count on the Saudis to continue to join us. And what we’re really trying to focus on is using our current infrastructure with the expats and integrating it with the Saudis.
“The coronavirus pandemic has been difficult as many of us have been made redundant. For us, as a people and as a sport that depended on our players, we suffered a lot because we lost maybe a quarter to a fifth of our player base. It impacts everything,” Aldajani added.
Despite its tough image, Aldajani said rugby was one of the safest sports he had ever played. But while he was keen to see it develop in schools and beyond, he wanted players to be smart and prioritize their education.
“Pro athletes have such a short window where they can be really good, and sometimes they’re really good but never succeed. They finish and maybe don’t work for years, but when they need a job, they realize they don’t have any skills.
“Maybe, in a way, my parents really insisted on it. School comes first. I’ve seen a lot of my friends who didn’t, and it didn’t worked as well for them as it did for me, so hopefully in some way rugby doesn’t take over a person’s life,” he added.
Variations of the game can be played with less physical contact.
“Touch rugby is for all ages, all sizes – we have guys who are 350lbs and play with us, up to guys who are maybe 110lbs and fly. It is a sport that can be practiced in a mixed way, men and women. It’s really fun,” Aldajani said.
Participation is not for everyone, but rugby is a popular spectator sport. The Rugby World Cup, which will take place in France next year, is the third biggest sporting event in the world. Closer to home, rugby is played throughout the Kingdom.