He came into the game contemplating retirement, but Matt Mills admits he may prolong his playing career after making an impact during his international debut on Friday night.
The Dubai Exiles flanker can now count himself among a select few who have represented the UAE at rugby – the schoolteacher started as Apollo Perelini’s side beat Gibraltar 28-15 in their only match of a curtailed 2017/18 calendar at Dubai Sports City.
Mills is just 29 but admits his body has been battered and bruised and left him feeling “more like a 50-year-old” during a career that brought him to the Emirates three years ago, where he is a now a PE teacher at Dubai English Speaking College.
Exiles returned to prominence this season, lifting the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens for the first time in 11 years in December, while they crowned their comeback campaign with the UAE Premiership trophy two weeks ago, beating Abu Dhabi Harlequins on the same field that Gibraltar were overcome on Friday.
All-action Mills would have seen more combat than most as part of Exiles’ formidable forward pack.
But he joked that if ever there was a reason to postpone a decision on hanging up his boots – earning the man-of-the-match accolade on his UAE debut as well as the promise of a first official cap in a year’s time could sway him.
“The match was very stop-start but played at a high intensity. It was great to play with some of the boys that I’ve had to tackle all season,” said Northampton native Mills.
“I think UAE rugby has taken a step up and is making the right moves towards where we want to be. Getting man of the match for the UAE on debut was a nice touch too.”
Victory against unranked Gibraltar required a lot of exertion on a muggy evening from a hugely talented yet very new-look UAE squad – of which Mills was one of seven Exiles.
All four of the UAE’s tries were scored by Exiles players – Gio Fourie, Durandt Gerber, Jaen Botes and Thinus Steyn crossing. Mills put in an understated but brilliant performance, setting up Steyn for the try of the match late in the contest that killed the visitors off.
Victory was bittersweet for the hosts, with Perelini putting together arguably the most talented squad of his tenure, and possibly the best UAE squad ever since they played their first international as a nation in 2011.
It came in a year in which they pulled out of playing in Division I of the Asia Rugby Championship – alongside the Philippines, Singapore and Sri Lanka in Manila in June – for as yet unexplained reasons.
It left Perelini scratching around for some meaningful fixtures at late notice for his squad, with the game against unranked opposition meaning it did not count as an official Test, so no caps were on offer for the players.
However, with the UAE Barbarians – essentially a team packed with potential future internationals approaching the three-year residency status – swatting aside a Gibraltar Development XV 64-0 on Thursday night, the future on the field looks bright for the nation ranked 70th in the world.
And with a possible return to Asia’s top table in 2019, Mills hopes to remain a part of the international picture.
“The man of the match and the debut, it means a lot,” admitted Mills.
“I’m looking forward to next year, if I haven’t retired by then. I’m sure a few more seasons won’t hurt. I hope there is a return to Asia competition, UAE rugby needs it if it’s going to keep moving in the right direction.
“Lots of my students and lads I coach were watching on Friday so it was nice to set an example and hopefully I’ll see some of them wearing the jersey soon.”
The UAE rugby community has rallied round in support of a stricken RAK Rugby player who was left in a very serious condition following a tackle at the season-ending Sharjah 10s tournament on Friday.
It was an abrupt end to the final domestic tournament of the UAE rugby season, with the famous competition abandoned after the RAK vets player was taken to hospital after suffering an in-game injury.
The player reportedly had to be resuscitated on the pitch at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club and is currently being treated in a local hospital.
The club released a statement on its Facebook page on Saturday, saying: “On Friday 27th April, while participating in a game of rugby at a tournament in Sharjah, a player suffered a serious injury.
“The club is currently in contact with the player’s family and officials and is unable to provide any further comment for the time being.
“The club shall issue further statements as soon as it is able. In the meantime, the thoughts and hearts of the club and its members go out to the player and his family.”
RAK RUGBY STATEMENT— RAK Rugby (@RAKRugby) 28 April 2018
On Friday 27th April, while participating in a game of rugby at a tournament in Sharjah, a player suffered a serious injury. The Club is currently in contact with the player's family and officials and is unable to provide any further comment at this time.
There was an outpouring of support and well wishers from clubs around the UAE in reaction to the club’s release, with tournament organisers Sharjah saying: “From everyone at Sharjah, our thoughts are with the player, his family and RAK Rugby. Sharjah are here to help in any way we can.”
Abu Dhabi Saracens chairman Jake Basson said: “Abu Dhabi Saracens Rugby Club have you, your family and the RAK family in our prayers. We wish you a speedy recovery. If there is anything we can do to assist, please do not hesitate to ask.”
Shads Palmer added: “RAK Rugby – the Hurricanes Rugby family are standing side by side with you in wishing for a positive outcome. We stand by for any support required – reach out if needed.”
The UAE laboured to victory in their sole international fixture of the 2017/18 season, beating visiting Gibraltar 28-15 in Dubai on Friday night.
Apollo Perelini’s hosts always looked in control of the tourists, taking a lead inside the opening 10 minutes that they never really looked like relinquishing.
But they could never quite break free from spirited opponents, who hit back with two tries of their own, one in each half.
At the end of a grueling season, fatigue and increasingly warm weather conditions would not have suited either side at Dubai Sports City.
“The breakdown was a mess and therefore the game was stop-start, there were lots of turnovers and lots of mistakes from both teams.
“It was good to get the win but we could have played a lot better with the quality we have got in the squad.”
All four of the UAE’s tries were scored by their seven-strong Dubai Exiles contingent, with rampaging hooker Gio Fourie powering over early on, his try converted by Exiles colleague and former Italy ‘A’ fly-half Durandt Gerber – with both players also making their UAE bows.
Chuqi Cruz got Gibraltar on the board with a penalty to make it 7-3 before Exiles prop Lukas Waddington was penalised for holding on as the UAE looked likely to stretch their lead.
They did so a few minutes later with a second try, Gerber cutting a fine line to burst through under the posts and converting his effort to make it 14-3.
But the visitors reduced the deficit to four at the interval with a fine try of their own, flanker Mike Milward getting the score after a flowing move through the UAE midfield.
With energy levels sapped in the second half, there was plenty of industry without much end product. But Perelini’s men went 21-10 up when Number 8 Jaen Botes rumbled over, Gerber again potting the extras.
They saved the best for last when Thinus Steyn’s show and go out wide on the right following a turnover saw the Exiles full-back steam in from 70 yards inside the final 10 minutes, Gerber’s conversion making the game safe at 28-10.
But the men from the Rock had the final word when replacement Aidan Beazley touched down following a forward drive in the dying embers of the game.
That’s it now for the UAE and indeed the domestic rugby season, with the UAE Rugby Federation deciding not to participate in June’s Asia Rugby Championship Division I in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, there was an abrupt end to the final domestic tournament of the UAE rugby season, with the famous Sharjah 10s tournament called off after an RAK Rugby vets player was taken to hospital following an in-game injury on Friday.
The player reportedly had to be resuscitated after being knocked out, with organisers confirming the match was called off following the incident. Shane Breen, chairman of Sharjah Wanderers – tournament hosts – said: “There was a serious injury in a game played on pitch two and the player is currently in hospital and we’re waiting to hear back on his condition. We’re also awaiting an incident report from the referees who were present.”