Among the highways, the skyscrapers, the glitz and the glamour of the ‘Venice of the Gulf’, lies a rugby competition that is now in its fifties.
A rugby tournament a half century old in the Arabian desert you say? It sounds more like the mirage of a weary rugby man, lost in the sands of life with his optimistic mind playing tricks on him; but this is no mirage, the oasis exists, and it’s called The Sevens Stadium.
Emirates Dubai 7s – the curtain-raiser to HSBC SVNS 2024 – is the largest sports and entertainment event in the Middle East, attracting more than 80,000 attendees from 128 countries. Last year’s edition saw global attendance from elite and amateur athletes alike, hosting more than 5,600 participants and 420 teams of all levels and ages from 32 countries.
Amateurs and internationals side by side
At the Emirates Dubai 7s, a fully-fledged amateur competition that is the beating heart of the event takes place on the pitches surrounding the main stadium. My love for the Dubai 7s is fuelled by personal bias as I tasted glory as part of a winning team in the 2015 International Open. I was by far the worst player on the team but by the enduring gift of Dubai, I got to call internationals teammates for a week. Our team oozed talent, but the most important ingredient was that ‘we just clicked’. A spirit forged equally on and off the pitch.
Why is this relevant? I’m no household name, but that is precisely the point. Every single amateur player who features in the many tournament tranches, arrives with the hope of making a final on Pitch 1, lining up against a legend and feeling like they are as integral to the life force of the tournament as the paid professionals. The beauty of Dubai is: they are.
Despite the exhilarating rugby showcased at the World Cup, rugby as sport finds itself still grappling with its post-professionalism identity and how it stays connected to the grassroots.
No such existential angst exists in Sevens. The accessibility of the brightest stars in the sport and the seemingly short and instantaneous leap from invitational player to fully fledged globe-trotting international truly makes it feel like your game.
Be prepared to spend the weekend rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of the game, or at the very worst, have their shoulder buried into your midriff on the pitch, as you gasp for breath!
Rugby ... plus
No true sports fan watches just one sport, so no true sports festival hosts just one sport. Dubai 7s has netball, cricket, fitness and, now, padel to reaffirm its status as the premier festival in the Middle East. You can compete, you can spectate, but either way, you cannot help but get immersed in it.
Where sport and music collide
Let’s face it, sevens has always been a party! Dubai 7s is the tournament that has got this right the longest. For many years it’s seen itself less as a rugby sevens tournament and more a festival of sport, music and entertainment – with rugby as its driver. In recent years Dubai 7s has amplified this with some of the greatest music acts on the planet.
Kylie Minogue marked 50 years of the Dubai 7s with a show stopping performance on Pitch 2 in 2019. Since that glitter-shimmered night, Dubai 7s has continued with its policy of top-billers and floor-fillers bringing Disclosure, Craig David and this year Becky Hill to its dedicated after-party stage ‘Frequency on 8’.
When the sun goes down you are now just as likely to meet someone in fancy dress chewing your ear off about ‘the greatest try you’ve ever seen’, as you are a music lover with no idea what a forward pass is but knows a vibe when they see one.
Dubai parties big, it parties loud and it parties late; so bring your A-game.
HSBC SVNS 2024 starter claxon
Dubai is the traditional rugby sevens season opener. After months of lung busting pre-season training the players return in peak physical condition. After months in a press vacuum, new faces and potentially new stars are unveiled and tongues start wagging. The slate is set clean, the race for the HSBC SVNS title is on, and the energy is palpable.
There is always a surprise package. There is always an established nation that underwhelms. And there is always a setting-your-season-stall-out intensity that gives Dubai just that little bit more edge.
The late, hot, desert nights the matches are played under, coupled with the significant ex-pat population in Dubai, who turn out in their droves, makes for a spicy atmosphere and one that crescendos as the top teams come to the fore.
Emirates Dubai 7s is a collision of all the finest things our sport has to offer and the only place to be this weekend when SVNS is reborn.