When Israel and the UAE took to the field on Friday 19 March for a rugby match, the scoreline was immaterial as the event marked a much more auspicious moment in history.
This was a ground-breaking point in relationships between the two nations as it was the first time they had met in the sport. The friendly match was 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 men in the middle of the matches were two GEMS maths teachers. Jaco de Wit, from The Cambridge High School – Abu Dhabi officiated the first match, and Monray Gilbert from GEMS Cambridge International School – Abi Dhabi, kept order over the second. Here the two rugby-loving referees, both from South Africa, share their experiences of what it meant to be on the field for such a landmark occasion.
Jaco de Wit, Mathematics teacher, CHS.
“It was so well organised. 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.
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.
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.”
I am starting my fourth year here at Cambridge and I have always been permitted to take time off to cover matches — as long as the kids get their work done! It is not something you would get anywhere, so that is a big plus for us as we can commit to both the schooling and rugby.”
Monray Gilbert, Secondary Mathematics Teacher, 11D Form Tutor GEMS CIS.
“Growing up in South Africa, where rugby is almost religious, I never dreamt of one day refereeing a momentous match between the UAE and Israel. I felt proud as I walked onto the pitch, marking this historic event. The atmosphere was timid and the stadium quiet, results of covid-19 restrictions, but the players were excited to be a part of history. I refereed the second match, where the teams were blended to display the newfound unity. The national pride exhibited by both sides was palpable. It means so much to take charge of a match that aims to break down barriers between the countries, not only politically but socially.
The UAE has blessed us all with so many opportunities and I will be forever grateful, treasuring this memory.
When you look back on your career, you always savour the big matches you have officiated and this will be something to remember forever.
We have to thank the schools in terms of accommodating us. The leeway is brilliant and we love to pay it back to them.”