URC chief defends plan to play pre-season matches in Qatar

The head of the United Rugby Championship has defended tentative plans to stage pre-season matches in Qatar using the stadiums built for this year’s football World Cup.

The URC has struck a new deal with Qatar Airways which has become the league’s official airline partner.

Martin Anayi, the URC chief executive, suggested it could lead to pre-season games being played in the Gulf state which is often a stop off point for European teams travelling to South Africa for fixtures.

Qatar’s staging of the football World Cup this winter has been mired in controversy, with reports of thousands of deaths of migrant workers involved in the construction of stadiums for the tournament.

Chief executive Martin Anayi speaks to the media at the BKT United Rugby Championship launch in Slough. Picture: www.inpho.ie

The state’s record on women’s rights and its stance on LGBT issues have also been heavily criticised.

Anayi suggested that rugby could be used as a force for good in Qatar and that the partnership with the state-owned airline could help bring about positive change.

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“The question around the workers in the stadiums, we’ve had conversations around it and it’s really important to us that sport is a way of communicating proper values,” Anayi said at the launch of the new URC season in Slough.

Qatar's Lusail Stadium under construction in 2019. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

“Rugby is new to Doha, to Qatar, they’re really interested in the values of rugby, in that team ethos and what they could potentially look at as communicating things that they are interested in doing; the community aspect.

“We’ve delved into it, it’s a good platform to be vocal and we want people to say their opinion. We want to use it in a positive way.”

He rebutted suggestions that the Qatar state could use the deal for ‘sportswashing’.

“I lived in the Middle East for many years, my dad is an Arab,” continued Anayi. “The culture is very different out there... and through western concepts becoming more and more prevalent in the Middle East I think it’s a good thing; personally I’ve lived through it.

“I think sport is a key part of that, you can see that in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you can see that in UAE and definitely in Qatar.”

He added that he could envisage “pre-season or exhibition games being played there”.

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