Saudi Sports for All calls on residents to take 92m steps with National Day campaign across the Kingdom

Saudi Sports for All calls on residents to take 92m steps with National Day campaign across the Kingdom
Saudi Sports for All calls on residents to take 92m steps with National Day campaign across the Kingdom

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - DHAHRAN: Ali Aldajani never thought that one day he would become well-known in his country as “the rugby guy.”
As president of the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation the 29-year-old has fond memories of his early years in the game and pride in how much the sport means to him today.
Growing up in the Kingdom, Aldajani was always an athlete. He played football, tennis, basketball, and took part in track and field events. When he moved to Canada at the age of 14, he decided to delve into a contact sport. Since his school did not have an American football team, he decided to try rugby.
After four months of training, he started to lose interest in the game — until he played his first match.
After that, he was hooked on the sport and the community behind it. He dropped his other sports to focus on rugby and when he returned to the Kingdom after finishing school, 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 dissolved.
“I was approached by someone who works with the Olympic committee about taking on the role as president, and, at the time, I was 26. I really wasn’t sure what I was able to do or what I could do, but I just knew that I liked the sport so decided to give it a try,” he said.
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 position in any sport within the Gulf Cooperation Council, we have probably the biggest ratio of nationals to non-nationals. When you look at other countries like the UAE and Kuwait, a lot of those teams, most of the population is based on expats,” he added.
Rugby union was introduced in the Kingdom by British expats in the mid-20th century. In 2010, the Kingdom enjoyed its first ever international win in a rugby competition. Initially, it was a mix of expat and Saudi players. In 2012, a national team — which was made up of only Saudi players — entered the West Asia 7s competition in the UAE 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 with individuals who have had international experience.
Amal Al-Grafi is the chief executive officer, Dr. Hadeel Ramadan Bakhsh heads the women’s rugby committee, and Lojain Alharbi chairs the finance committee. The communications, grassroots sports, player welfare, and coaching and officiating committees and led by Sami Amin, Mansour Aldehaiman, Waleed Yousef, and Khalid Al-Mansour, respectively, while Patrick Raupach is board adviser and head of the competitions committee.
While the majority of players are men, great efforts are being made to encourage women and girls to take up the sport.
Aldajani said: “Women’s rugby is a very big focus for us, starting with kids in middle and high school — there are some clubs here that are specifically for kids under the age of eight, between the ages of two and four, and up to 12. So those are going pretty strong.
“Our strategy as a federation was to select a few schools that had a blend of Saudi and expat kids, the reason being that the expat kids, or their parents, will most likely have been exposed to the sport back home. So, convincing them to play would be a lot less difficult.
“And because they are meant to sell tickets, now the kids want to participate with their friends, and they know it gets them excited. It’s also something new,” he added.
The federation’s training and education committee concentrates on developing individuals and players to become either match officials, first aiders, or coaches for kids, adults, and even professionals.
Aldajani pointed out that the tight-knit nature of the rugby community ensured that many ex-players ended up getting involved in coaching or helping out in other ways.
“You have a population of players that are engaged beyond retirement age. We focus on playing fifteens and sevens. Sevens is a very fast-paced game involving a lot of sprinting. Most people retire about 28 or 29 but some go on until they are 34. But by the age of 35, the bones start to ache, and break,” he said.
Major positives of the game, he noted, were its inclusivity and culture built on honor, integrity, respect, discipline, and teamwork.
According to Guinness World Records, the oldest international rugby union 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 Saudis are becoming keen to join in.
“We have the sustainability model where we can always rely on Saudis to keep joining. And what we’re really trying to focus on is using our current infrastructure with expats and embedding it with Saudis.
“The coronavirus pandemic was tough because a lot of us got laid off. For us, as a population and as a sport that relied on our players, we suffered a lot because we lost maybe a quarter to a fifth of our player base. It takes a toll on 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 expand in schools and beyond, he wanted players to be smart, and prioritize their education.
“Professional athletes have such a short window where they can be really good, and sometimes they’re really good but never make it through. They finish, and perhaps do not work for years, but when they come to needing a job, they find they have no skills.
“Maybe, in a way, my parents really emphasized that. School comes first. I’ve seen a lot of my friends that didn’t do that, and it hasn’t worked out as well for them as it has for me. So, I hope in a way that rugby does not take over a person’s life,” he added.
Variations of the game can be played with less physical contact.
“Touch rugby caters to all ages, all sizes — we have guys that are 350 pounds and play with us, up to guys that are maybe 110 pounds and fly around. It is a sport that can be played co-ed, male and female. It’s really fun,” Aldajani said.
Participation is not for everyone, but rugby is a popular spectator sport. The Rugby World Cup, taking place in France next year, is the third-largest sporting event in the world. Closer to home, rugby is played throughout the Kingdom.

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