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Scrum Down: One minute playing for Smiths, the next an ‘Oil Black’ international star

By WillWoodrugby  |  Posted: January 23, 2013

Scrum Down with Will Wood

Scrum Down with Will Wood

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FOR many aspiring players playing rugby at international level is the pinnacle of achievement, and Bob Ellis can lay claim to have done just that.

Now president of Smiths (Industries), Ellis grew up at the Cheltenham club before later playing for what is now Leicester Lions.

But it was while he was working for Powergen in 1979 that Ellis took the brave decision to move to Saudi Arabia to work, and subsequently play international rugby.

The sport of rugby union was introduced to the oil-rich Arabian Gulf by the British in the mid 20th century, but an influx of oil workers at the time of Ellis’ arrival meant it experienced a revival.

The Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union was founded in 1974 and consisted of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In 1976, just before Ellis arrived, the first Saudi club was set up in the port city of Al Khobar, and then two years later the second was formed in the Red Sea coastal city Jeddah.

Due to the harsh desert climate games in the Gulf League were frequently played in extreme temperatures and on pitches made entirely of sand.

While there, Ellis had the privilege of playing for the national team, officially nicknamed as the ‘Scorpions’ but more commonly known as the ‘Oil Blacks.’

And while in recent years there has been a larger population of Saudi nationals playing the sport, back then the team was made up largely from expatriates like Ellis.

Ellis returned home after a year in the Gulf and went on to enjoy a 14-year stint as Smiths chairman before going on to become president, a position he has held for the last 18 years.

But he always remembers his time as an Oil Black fondly.

He said: “I was working in the public sector and found it very boring so I left and went to Saudi Arabia.

“I was just sitting there doing nothing and couldn’t take it, so I left and had a year in Saudi Arabia where I played for the Saudi Arabians.

“At the time, there were only two rugby clubs over there and I was working for an American oil company.

“I was in my 30s by that time, but I’d taken my boots with me and played every game of the season while I was there.

“I played about 15 games in total and rugby was hard.

“It was good because we used to play in the Gulf League against the likes of Doha, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain and it was great.

“Every away game cost £37 per flight on Gulf Air and at that time I was earning £14,000 a year, which in 1979 was huge money.

“The Saudi international team were all expatriates and were made up of people from Great Britain with a few Americans as well.

“We enjoyed ourselves out there and I played at hooker and was not an openside, where I had played previously, any more. We got called the ‘Oil Blacks’ once and it has stuck ever since.”

Celebrating 60 years of rugby, and being by far the best drinkers in town!

ONE of the most important principals of Smiths (Industries) RFC has always been the social side of the game.

With this in mind, the Gloucester Division Three side recently celebrated their 60th anniversary in true style.

Players both old and new came together for a one-off reunion and special game at Newlands Park, with a bottle of port being passed around at half-time followed by a post-match curry and social.

The rugby club originated as the workforce team from the now GE Aviation factory in Bishop’s Cleeve.

Before branching out in to aerospace engineering, the company started out making watches – and the years rolled back on that special get-together.

At the club’s beginning, a lot of the fixtures were played between inter-company sides and the high point of their history came in the 1970s and 1980s with as many as four teams being put out.

In 1984 Smiths won the inaugural Gloucester Division Four title before the advent of the leagues set in and player numbers began to dwindle.

Town rivals Cheltenham, Old Patesians and Cheltenham North have always overshadowed them, but club president Bob Ellis said despite their lack of success one thing has never changed.

“The best thing has always been the social ethos and we are known throughout Gloucestershire as the best drinkers, but we still play a good game of rugby now and again,” said Ellis.

“The objectives were always ‘have a good game of rugby and then have a good drink up in the bar afterwards’.

“At the 60th anniversary day, there were more than 50 blokes there and it’s a good family club and always has been.

“We’ve had a whole raft of players turn up over the years but our better players have gone on to play for Cheltenham, Old Pats or Cheltenham North.

“There was no one spectacular but from time to time we produced a very good side that could compete with the Pats and the North.

“The best time I ever had was when we all came together at the same time in the 1970s and 1980s.

“There were no leagues then so there was no reason to move on unless you wanted to aspire to play first class rugby.

“But we all grew up together from the age of 18 to our pomp in our thirties and became lifelong friends.”

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