The awards keep rolling in for Abu Dhabi Harlequins and captain Ben Bolger, but the inspirational skipper insists any one of his Quins team-mates could have won the UAE Rugby Senior Player of the Season.
The Englishman was awarded the accolade at the UAE Rugby Annual Awards on Saturday, but was too busy doing what he does best – prowling around a rugby field, at UAE training – to pick up his trophy in person.
Instead he was presented with it by UAE Rugby performance manager Apollo Perelini at The Sevens – once training had finished, of course – with Perelini revealing that in just his second year of eligibility for his adopted nation, Bolger will captain the UAE on their upcoming tour of Malaysia.
“Rugby’s a big part of everyone’s life out here so to get recognition for playing well in a pool of really talented players is obviously really humbling,” said Bolger, 27.
“At the end of the day the boys on the (Quins) team were fantastic and it was difficult to pick out man of the match every week. I couldn’t do it without them and it could have easily been one of the other boys (winning this award).”
If you’ve ever been present at a Quins game, Bolger will quickly be identifiable. Either via his industrious style of play which can see him pop up anywhere and everywhere on the field, or his constant cajoling of team-mates and seemingly never-ending dialogue.
“It’s just in me. I’m a bit of a loud mouth, I like to be in the mix and I think sub-consciously it makes my game better when I’m tuned in, pushing other boys,” admitted Bolger.
“It gives me accountability to make sure I’m leading from the front and doing my job well. By being a leader it makes me the best player I can be.”
A week on from Quins crowning an unprecedented season of success by adding the UAE Premiership to their West Asia Premiership, Dubai Sevens, West Asia Cup and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League titles, Bolger admits he’s had time to reflect on the magnitude of just what he and his colleagues have achieved.
“We had a bit of a get-together on Thursday and it really sunk in then, an incredible year that I’m sure everyone involved won’t forget for years to come,” he added.
Although most of his team-mates at club level can now look forward to reflecting on just what a huge achievement they reached in 2016/17 during the summer months off, Bolger has no such luxury, nor do you imagine would he want such as he looks ahead to leading the UAE in their Asia Rugby Championship campaign.
After playing a part in helping the UAE to conquer Division I in Uzbekistan a year ago as vice-captain, Bolger will now lead from the front as the UAE take on Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines – with a shot at not only joining the elite top three of Asia on offer, but also a possible chance to be part of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
And in typical bullish fashion, Bolger has no interest in going to Malaysia to make up the numbers.
“We’ll take one step at a time but our focus is to go and win this,” he said.
“I think we’ll be doing ourselves an injustice if we say we’re going there to compete. With the way the league is locally it’s too strong, there’s too many good players to say we’ll go over there and have a good crack. We’re going out to win. We have the team.
“We’ve still got three or four weeks until the tournament, we’ve still got a lot of work to do but we know we want to go out there and win. We’re not going to beat around the bush. I think we’ve picked the right squad and we’re looking forward to getting going.”
Perelini stepped things up with a grueling five-hour session in the burning April sun on Saturday. The UAE will now move to two-a-week training sessions ahead of departing for Ipoh early next month, with the hosts first up on May 14.
They will also play a UAE Conference Select XV at The Sevens on Friday, with a match against a UAE Premiership Select XV the following week in Sharjah.
“It’s fantastic, and every week we’re looking sharper,” added Bolger. “We’re playing a bit of a different style to the other teams, and everyone’s learning different patterns, but everyone’s coming together. I think it’s encouraging.”
And the flanker is looking forward to playing among another band of newcomers to the UAE set-up this year, with the likes of Jebel Ali Dragons scrum-half Kris Greene, Dubai Hurricanes fly-half Andy Powell, Dubai Exiles Number 8 Glenn Moore and fellow Quins, fly-half Luke Stevenson, all reaching eligibility this season.
“They’re 100 per cent adding value to what we already have,” he added.
“It’s nice there’s quite a few lads who’ve been there one, two or three years now to keep the ethos going and give boys advice on what to expect from the other Asian teams.
“It’s fantastic to get to know more boys you play week in week out but don’t actually get a chance to know personally. It’s really exciting and I’m really looking forward to getting going.”
Mike McFarlane, predictably, picked up the Coach of the Year award at the UAE Rugby Annual Awards yesterday, but used his accolade to pay tribute to everyone who has helped Abu Dhabi Harlequins achieve such an historic season of success.
Quins and silverware have gone hand in hand this season as the Abu Dhabi club blazed a trail to glory – winning the quintuple of West Asia Premiership, Dubai Sevens, UAE Premiership, West Asia Cup and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League.
And two more individual trophies followed yesterday as talismanic co-captain and flanker Ben Bolger was named Senior Player of the Season and McFarlane the UAE’s best coach as the cream of the crop in the Emirates was celebrated at Dubai’s Metropolitan Hotel.
And although he is quoted and name-checked more than most, McFarlane was full of praise for the whole club.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” he said. “It’s a great award to pick up but it’s a pat on the back for the whole coaching team, rather than just me. You look at the calibre of coaches at the club and it’s a large reason why the boys were so successful this year.
“Backs, forwards, strength and conditioning, managers, physios are all in place so I’m picking it up on behalf of them too. It’s also for the massive hours and work-rate the players have put in, everyone involved. It doesn’t come down to one person.”
It’s been a week since Quins beat Jebel Ali Dragons 30-20 at Dubai Sports City to lift the fifth trophy of a remarkable 2016/17 at the UAE Rugby Federation’s inaugural UAE Rugby Finals Day.
And McFarlane admitted he is only just beginning to realise the significance of the club’s success this season.
“Each day it feels bigger and bigger,” he added.
“It happened in a moment and we took it for granted I think. Dubai Exiles chairman Mike Wolff came up to me and said how incredible an achievement it was, and it’s when people like that, who we have the biggest of rivalries with, come up and say what a massive achievement it is, you realise that it really is some achievement.
“I’m sure it will start to sink in the next few weeks but we’re really chuffed with our achievements.”
There was plenty more to celebrate yesterday as trophies were given out to an array of rugby talent from around the UAE. There were 13 categories in all, while the lack of an event to celebrate last year’s brilliance also resulted in the 2015/16 awards also being handed out.
Quins were also among the other awards with former first team player Mike Ballard’s Mike Ballard Foundation Committee taking home the Volunteer of the Season award.
Al Ain Amblers’ stalwart Manu Vilsoni, meanwhile, took home arguably the day’s most popular accolade as he collected the Neil Palmer Award – established in memory of the ex-Arabian Knights chairman and founder, who died in February 2015 – which was presented by Neil’s widow, Louise.
Their fairytale ending wasn’t to be but Al Ain Amblers can be rightly proud of the storybook turnaround to their 2016/17 season.
It’s been a hectic seven months for the Garden City side, who went from self-relegation from the UAE Premiership after just one game in September to the UAE Conference Top 6 final last weekend.
It ultimately ended in disappointment as 14-men Amblers went down to a Kent Watene sudden death try scored in extra-time after the same player had touched down in the final seconds of normal time to take a breathtaking game beyond 80 minutes.
Al Ain director of rugby Rocco De Bruyn nervously paced up and down the touchline throughout the game’s duration and although he was left distraught, he thinks Amblers march to the final gives the club great hope for next season.
“I’m very proud of the boys,” said De Bruyn.
“A game of missed opportunities but a fitting game for a final. It was very hard to play with a man down in a final, but the guys really left everything on the pitch. It gives us something to work for in the next season.”
Another proud man was club chairman Sean Emmett, who played at hooker in the showpiece.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow,” he said of defeat, having seen hulking prop Epeli Davetawalu initially put Amblers 26-19 ahead with their fourth try before being sent off minutes later to leave them up against it.
“The Quins showed their resilience and were able to push us to the end and their fitness came through. As chairman, I’m super proud of the team. As a member of the team, we grew as a group of players and formed a great bond this season.”
Although the over-riding feeling will be heartbreak for a while, when they reflect on 2016/17, Amblers should do so with a lasting feeling of having restored pride.
Their first campaign back at the top level in 2015/16 had been a turbulent one – with just two victories claimed in 18 Premiership and West Asia Championship games.
But this past campaign began under a shroud of inner turmoil, with star players like Niko Volavola, Emosi Ratuvecanaua, Jerry Kilicanasau, Esekaia Dranibota and Sakiusa Naisau plucked by elite rivals like Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Dubai Exiles and Jebel Ali Dragons.
The club took the difficult decision to withdraw from the Premiership following an opening 45-3 defeat at the hands of Abu Dhabi Saracens, but fortunes didn’t immediately improve a level down in the Conference.
They opened their campaign with three defeats to Dragons 2nds, Quins 2nds and Exiles 2nds. They didn’t earn a first win until October 7 – a 16-15 victory against Dubai Wasps.
Steadily, results improved though. They won five of their next seven to even scrape into the end of season Top 6 at Heartbeat Tigers’ expense – both teams finished on 24 points but Amblers progressed due to a far superior points difference.
It was in the Top 6 that Amblers came into their own. Early season Conference pace-setters Dragons 2nds and Exiles 2nds fell away as Amblers raced to first place, earning 21 points from four wins and a sole defeat.
It saw them qualify for the final, where they met Quins 2nds who finished runners-up. The ultimate prize was cruelly taken away, but they have certainly laid down roots for further promise in the future.