During a workout in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, on October 31, 2018, rugby players practice in preparation of the Dubai Sevens to be held in late-November. Photo: Mohammed Shwani | Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — With Kurds and members from Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia, a rugby club based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is in the final stages of training for the Dubai Rugby Sevens Invitational that starts in a month.
"Rugby in Kurdistan is nice because it has very diverse people — expats and nationals, Kurds, Arabs, English — every nationality you can find in the club. That is why we like it and keep playing it," said Bjar Kareem, 25, a Kurd from Kirkuk who now lives in Erbil.
He discovered the game five years ago when a group of expats began playing for leisure in the Kurdistan Region’s capital of Erbil.
"The challenges are we do not have a real rugby pitch to train on, and rugby kits to train, plus we do not have enough Kurdish players and local players, so we borrow players from outside of the country," he said during a contact training session on Wednesday.
Around 40 people participate weekly. They hail from all six major continents. With jobs in various sectors, the Kurdistan Irregulars Rugby Club is self-supported through donations.
Foreigners and locals will go to Dubai bearing the Flag of Kurdistan on their kits.
"As Kurds, we want to be a part of this tournament. We have two targets: First we can play rugby there, and second we can promote Kurdistan towards international people and then can introduce them to what Kurdistan is, what types of sports we do, while playing rugby," added Kareem.
They will compete at the three-day tournament at the end of November. The invitational attracts 300 teams and more than 100,000 fans from across the world.
Kareem would like to see rugby played more in Kurdistan where football is king. But the endeavor needs assistance.
"I hope we get more supporters or support from the government so we can promote rugby in different cities. We want to promote rugby across Kurdistan," he said.
The club provides players with an opportunity to learn the game, but also to network and socialize.
"I like the social aspect of the club — how it draws in people from all walks of life. Not one of us is from the exact same sector or organization which is really nice and healthy. It adds diversity to the week," said 29-year-old Mitch McTough who is originally from Kisumu, Kenya.
Rugby 7s enjoys more popularity in the Middle East than 15s. Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and especially Lebanon whose national team is nicknamed ‘The Phoenix’ play the sport.
"Sevens is something that took off in the Middle East. Unions not so well played here — not poorly played — but it hasn't been taken up and gotten the same traction as in some of the southern and northern hemisphere countries. That might be due to the temperature. Sevens is played very much in Lebanon," said McTough. He learned the game while studying in England.
The club has been to Dubai twice previously. They did not go in 2017. Coordinating training, travel, and facilities can be challenging.
"This is going to be the first time for me. I think the mere fact that we are actually doing it as opposed to a lot of talk last year. But there was also the preparation and commitment from people," he explained.
McTough enjoys the diversity of the club despite the challenges.
"One of the reasons we are called irregulars is because there is not a regular group of people, hence the name," he said.
To coach the team, they brought in Chuck Berry, 48, from Leeds, England who has played rugby for around 35 years.
"I got in it by accident really. I have been coming along since February since I started working in Kurdistan. Naturally through playing the game through the years and coached at different levels, I just kind of volunteered with Hiwa and said I would lend some of that experience to the team that were going to Dubai," he said.
There is a maxim that 'Football is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, and Rugby Union is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.'
"It's traditionally played at private schools in the south of England predominately. It was always regarded as a gentleman's sport; whereas football is less regarded as a gentleman's sport shall we say," explained Berry.
"For me, it's one of the toughest sports in the world. I think it's a testing individually and it's a testing as a team sport. It's great for camaraderie and it's a good physical contest every time you play," he added.
The coach will tell his players to "enjoy it" before they head off to Dubai.
"It's all about the enjoyment. It doesn't matter if you win or lose; it's about going together as a team, winning as a team, drawing as a team, or losing as a team," Berry said.
Twice per week for the past year cold or heat, rain or shine, they organize "touch-rugby" where men and women play for two hours to learn the basics of spacing, passing, and hitting gaps (running lanes).
"It's about showing them how much fun it can be. It doesn't always all have to be about contact because the touch rugby element of it is non-contact. And it's more about learning rugby through non-contact and then people who want to move into contact sport can do so for there," added Berry.
Like McTough and Kareem, the coach sees the sport capable of growing in Kurdistan.
"Starting at a grassroots level, teaching children at school would be the ideal way to do that," said Berry, but you would require the experience of somebody in Kurdistan who is knowledgeable with rugby.
"And it needs things like this [media attention] to get it advertised — we've got a lot of Kurdish people who play. Their skill level has improved massively in a very short period of time having been shown and coached a little bit better," Berry applauded.
The sport began at Rugby School, England, in 1845 when three students wrote "Rugby style of the game" — three years before Cambridge University codified football with the "Cambridge Rules."
American football was first played in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. They used rules similar to rugby, and in the decade that would follow, American Football grew into its own sport on the East Coast.