Dubai: When Israel and the UAE took to the field on Friday evening for a rugby match, the scoreline was immaterial as the event marked a much more auspicious moment in history.
This was a groundbreaking point in relationships between the two nations as it was the first time in history they had met in the sport — a match set up to extend the hands of friendship as the UAE and Israel normalise ties and tensions have thawed since a peaceful pact in August last year.
And the man in the middle — referee Jaco de Wit — gave Gulf News an exclusive account of what it meant to be on the field for such a landmark occasion.
“It was so well organised,” De Wit said in a chat with Gulf News following the match. “All praise to the Sports Council and the UAE Rugby Federation. Rugby was the true winner on the day. I was overwhelmed by how well everyone involved kept to the true spirit of the game. Everywhere I looked there were smiles, jokes, laughs and a real community spirit.”
Despite a lopsided result — Israel won 33-0 over four seven-minute periods in the seven-a-side friendly clash — no one felt like a loser. GEMS mathematics teacher De Wit was first to recognise this match was more than just a scoreline.
“While you could see Israel were in better condition as they go for Olympic qualification and they had a mission, the encouragement that was given to every good UAE tackle or pass from the opposition was astounding,” he said.
“It felt like a training game between old friends. The honour was all mine to witness such an event. There were no scuffles, even after a late tackle. It was like a good game in the back yard.”
The two teams came back for a second match under the floodlights of the Inspiratus Sports District field at Dubai Sports City where the teams were mixed, with Emiratis and Israelis teaming up on both sides. De Wit’s fellow GEMS teacher Monray Gilbert oversaw that match as De Wit watched on from the sidelines.
“It was fascinating to see how the more-experienced Israelis would gee-up the Emiratis and encourage every move, ensuring they were all involved and gain invaluable experience,” said De Wit.
Reflecting on the momentous occasion of holding the whistle for the first match, De Wit explained: “This is such a key moment in history. I couldn’t really believe it when I got the call to officiate. I am so lucky and blessed I got the appointment and it will stay with me all my life.”
De Wit also confessed his relief that he didn’t have to get involved and was grateful he kept the cards in his pocket.
“Thankfully, the guys were all professional and I didn’t get a hard time,” he said. “They all played in the true spirit of the game and were true professionals.”