Players, coaches and staff from Dubai Exiles visited labourers in Dubai last Friday, handing out club kit, balls, food parcels and even Cornettos to some of the unsung heroes of the Emirates.
In a fantastic community initiative, around 50 club members spent a few hours playing games with over 1,000 labourers based in Al Quoz.
First-team player Durandt Gerber, a former Italy A international, came up with the idea after noticing that huge amounts of old club jerseys and balls were lying around in storage at Exiles’ home at The Sevens after the club switched sponsors this season.
Gerber, Matt Richards, Kristian Stinson and Stephen Ferguson were just some of the senior players in attendance, as well as head coach and director of rugby, Jacques Benade, who called it a “magic” day.
“It’s nice to say thanks to some of the guys who make life out here for most people the way it is,” said Benade.
“We have a few boys at the club at the moment, not in the same situation, but perhaps not earning big figures of money. I think it’s nice for the club to appreciate things like this.
“It wasn’t about us giving out free stuff, it was about spending time with these guys, chatting to them, appreciating how difficult life is here for them with working conditions and living away from home, and appreciate what we have ourselves.
“A lot of the boys found it a humbling experience. It was just a magic day.”
Benade paid tribute to fly-half Gerber who worked hard to turn his own idea into a reality.
Benade added: “It’s unbelievable how much old equipment we’ve had lying around in the stores. Our contract with Canterbury ran out and Durandt said ‘there’s so much stuff here, wouldn’t it be great to go out and visit the labour camps’, so he jumped on that and he did a brilliant job.
“They’re just the same as us, here working trying to make a bit of money and maybe send some home, it’s just we live in a lot more luxury than them.
“The guys really appreciated it too and it’s unbelievable how well mannered they are.”
Perhaps not accustomed to much rugby on the sub continent, players and labourers even joined in with an impromptu volleyball match using rugby balls, and it is something Benade said the club is looking to make a regular thing.
“It turned out to be a two-three hour session, they had a volleyball game with the rugby ball too so that was brilliant,” said Benade.
“As a club we try to support as many charities as we can and it’s something we’ll be looking to do again.
“We’re also trying to help at non-playing rugby schools and maybe lend some coaching to them. Not everyone is in a position to come up to The Sevens and train at weekends.
“I think it made a big difference to them and I just hope it just raises a bit of awareness and we can do maybe two or three more events like this throughout the year.”
With expat life in the UAE often well-paid and glamorous, flanker Matt Mills said everyone enjoyed giving a little something back.
“It was really good, humbling and levels you out from the life in Dubai,” said Mills.
“The boys really enjoyed it, it was a great turn out from all different clubmen and women.
“The labourers really got involved too, really enjoyed the simple games we played. I think they just enjoyed being silly as they don’t get much of a chance to let loose.
“It was great to get that many men throwing a rugby ball around too as for many of them it was their first time. Very humbling.”
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.