Baby Boks look to defend new territory

Rugby union will break new ground on Tuesday as the under-19 World Cup kicks off in the United Arab Emirates, the first time a major international 15-a-side tournament has taken place in the region.

South Africa will be looking to retain the title they won a year ago on home soil after a 20-15 defeat of New Zealand, while local officials hope the tournament could pave the way for senior level events here.

Chief among their challengers will be the All Blacks, winners of four under-19 titles in the last seven years, and Wales who completed the Six Nations Grand Slam this season, just one year after their senior counterparts managed the same feat.

The tournament is divided into two groups of 12 teams with the top 12 playing for the title and the bottom 12 playing for promotion to the top group in next year’s competition.

South Africa coach Eugene Eloff is adamant the Baby Boks will face a stiff challenge this year. “You cannot underestimate any team, even Argentina,” he said.

The opening matches take place in Sharjah on Tuesday with South Africa beginning their title defence against France a day later. The final is in Dubai on April 21.

Dubai is no stranger to hosting major events with top class tennis, golf, horse racing, rugby sevens and now A1 motor racing becoming permanent fixtures in the oil-rich and rapidly-expanding emirate.

Backed by Emirates Airlines, who recently put their name to Arsenal Football Club’s new stadium after terminating a sponsorship agreement with the Gunners’ London rivals Chelsea, Dubai is hoping to stage a successful event with a view to one day hosting the senior World Cup.

“The IRB has shown great trust and belief in bringing this event to the Middle East,” said Emirates group services president Gary Chapman who also championed the emirate’s claims to hosting the senior World Cup.

“The infrastructures would have to be built but with the rapid changes in the region, the answer is yes.
There is no reason why it couldn’t happen.”

So far, the World Cup has been kept in the Rugby Union homelands of Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

“We think it’s our best shop window to bring this event to new markets,” said IRB tournament director Simon Jelowitz. “Asia and the Middle East being a key market.

“We are very confident they can deliver to our specifications. This will give an indication of their ability to run tournaments of this calibre and this size. It might be that a tender is in the offing for the next Sevens World Cup in 2009.”

Dubai has already taken over the headquarters of the International Cricket Council, making use of its central location among cricket playing nations. - Sapa-AFP

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