The road to recovery for athletes is often long and arduous, although Winston Cowie is living proof of exactly why they put themselves through such pain and sacrifice.
Six years after dislocating his knee in the West Asia rugby union play-off final against Dubai Hurricanes, the 34-year-old Abu Dhabi Saracens player coach has been named in UAE coach Apollo Perelini’s squad to play in the Asia Rugby Championship later this month.
Perelini has picked a 28-man squad for a three-match tour to Malaysia, with Jebel Ali Dragons dominating the selection with eight players picked. There are six from Dubai Hurricanes, five each from Abu Dhabi rivals Harlequins and Saracens, two from Dubai Exiles and two UAE Shaheen players.
New Zealander Cowie had two operations following his injury in one of Gulf rugby’s showpiece games, his pain perhaps felt even more keenly when his Doha side went down to a last-minute Steve Smith try that saw Canes win 20-15.
He couldn’t even run properly for another two years – yet here he is, set to fly out to Ipoh for Division I games against the hosts, Sri Lanka and the Philippines as the UAE fight to get back to Asia rugby’s top table.
“It’s been a long road back to playing since dislocating my knee,” admitted Cowie, who took the reins at Al Ghazal last summer.
“Two operations, two years of not being able to run properly, but through a lot of hard work, a very understanding wife – Lucy Jones – and being involved with a great bunch at Saracens this year I have managed to get there.
“I’m incredibly grateful to AP (Perelini) for the opportunity and look forward to a massive campaign in Malaysia. It’s a really tight-knit bunch of guys and we look forward to working hard and doing the UAE rugby community proud.”
Cowie had no intentions of playing this year having taken on the Sarries’ coaching role. But when injuries and visa issues traveling to Doha left Sarries with a bare 15, including physio Tim Fletcher, Cowie stepped up, and in fact ended up playing 12 games.
“I was just going to change but then that changed in funny circumstances. I’m really pleased I did and I’m grateful for selection,” he added.
“Come the start of the year, I thought I would head along to the UAE training, go hard and have a crack. The training has been awesome and highly competitive, it’s been awesome to be a part of it.
“It’s been great to meet a top bunch of gents from the other clubs. So now we’re just really looking forward to getting on the plane and getting stuck in.”
Cowie, manager of marine policy for the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), was out in the middle of the ocean when he got the call he would be going to Malaysia on Tuesday.
“I was out doing our coral monitoring in the western region of Abu Dhabi, flat calm, pods of dolphins, breaching turtles, and then this news at the end of it,” said Cowie.
“I was in and out of reception a few times so after each dive I’d be trying to check my phone, and then I got the news just as we came into port in Mirfa. There were a few high fives.”
Despite a difficult season on the field for the club, Cowie is joined by four more Sarries players on tour, including No8 Jaen Botes, props Murray Reason and Ross Byres and scrum-half Rickus Swart.
He added: “I’m so rapt for the five Sarries that made it. Jaen, Murray and Rikus are well established for the UAE, and I’m rapt for them but particularly for our loose-head prop Ross who has been excellent all season and deserves his call up. It’s going to be great.”
Ben Bolger (capt), Chris Jones-Griffiths, Ed Talbot, Ed Lewsey, Luke Stevenson (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Josh Ives, Dave Knight, Dan Perry (vice capt), Andrew Powell, Toby Oakeley, Lindsay Fitzgerald (Dubai Hurricanes); Dan Minks, Paul Hart, Ben Blamire, Dan Bell, Chris Masson, Kris Greene, Ryno Fourie, Scott Hayes (Jebel Ali Dragons); Jaen Botes, Murray Reason, Ross Byres, Rikus Swart, Winston Cowie (Abu Dhabi Saracens); Glenn Moore, Sean Carey (Dubai Exiles); Majid Al Balooshi, Ahmed Al Shehi (UAE Shaheen)
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.”