Phil Abraham admits there will be mixed emotions when he pulls the Philippines jersey on against the UAE on Saturday. It will be the veteran hooker’s final appearance for his nation and comes against best friend Ben Bolger and many of his Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ teammates.
But the 34-year-old is realistic enough to know there will be no room for sentiment as survival is at stake – with the winner earning the right to stay in Division I of the Asia Rugby Championship while the loser will be relegated.
The American is the very definition of multi-national. He was born and raised in Chicago to a Filipino mother and Indian father, and was first introduced to international rugby while playing in college at the University of Illinois before playing stints in New Zealand and then Australia.
It was during the 2013 Asian 5 Nations that Abraham ran into future Quins’ teammates Graham Murphy and Malcolm Greenslade, having just played for the Philippines against the UAE.
Abraham, who had already accepted a job in the UAE capital, also unwittingly paved the way for his move to the Zayed Sports City-based club in that chance encounter.
Defeat to the Volcanoes that day in May four years ago seriously burnt the UAE who lost their place in the Top 5 as a result, and while Abraham has a lot of love for the men he faces today, he knows he has a job to do.
“There is a case of split loyalties, I love being a Quin, I love being a Volcano. But it’s country before club,” said Abraham, who will be winning his 19th and final cap for the Philippines.
“Being a Volcano is part of my cultural identity. Representing my blood, making my mom and my family proud.
“Benny’s (Bolger, UAE captain) my best friend and I wish him nothing but the best. But I’ll be doing everything I can to get the win for the country. Especially with this being my last Test match and especially knowing what the stakes are.
“I wouldn’t pick any other way to have it. It’s really special to me because I played against the UAE in 2013 right before I moved to Abu Dhabi, met the Quins boys and they made Abu Dhabi a home for me and my wife.
“Now it’s coming full circle closing out like this. It’s like two worlds coming together. Playing with my brothers for country and against my brothers from club.”
Abraham, who deals with teenage hormones on a daily basis in his job as a school counsellor at GEMS American Academy in Abu Dhabi, joked he has no solution for the possibility of him falling out with Bolger and fellow Quins Ed Talbot, Luke Stevenson and Chris Jones-Griffiths should his Philippines send the UAE back down to Division II.
“It’s a round robin so each team plays each other so that’s great, I get to get my hands on some of them (Quins teammates), said University of Illinois alumni, Abraham, who has decided to call time on his career as he has a young son.
“It might put mine and Ben’s friendship to the test but it should be fun and it’ll raise the competition of the game so I’m looking forward to it.”
“It’s going to be fun because the UAE have just been promoted to Division I. I’m going to be playing against a lot of players I know so it will be a fun time.
“There’s a lot of good young, talented guys coming through and that’s a good thing of playing for your country, you get to play for your culture and there’s a lot of pride in it.”
It might seem strange; an American, with an Indian and Filipino parents, ending up playing rugby rather than basketball, cricket or baseball.
But Abraham explained that rugby has a well-established platform in the States, including in college where he first caught the bug.
“I picked it up at university and that’s where it’s big out there, especially now with the sevens,” said Abraham, who played at Illinois before turning out for his hometown club the Chicago Lions, who play in Midwest Division I of the USA Rugby Club Championships.
“I played for the University of Illinois and their team is like 60 years old. A lot of major universities in the States have pretty well established club systems and they range in level of competitiveness. I played at a big school and with a big club.
South African rugby received a much needed boost on Sunday as the Blitzbokke claimed the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Paris.
The South Africa team were worthy winners of the 10-tournament global competition making eight of the nine Cup finals so far this season and claiming the title with the London leg still remaining as they hold an unassailable 34 point lead on the series points table.
Their triumphant campaign of course began here in the UAE in early December last year where they won the first of five tournaments this series.
But will this victory give a much needed fill-up to the fifteen-man game in South Africa and is there anything Springbok coach Allister Coetzee can take from the Blitzbokke to help their more famous namesakes?
2016 was among the worst on record for the Springboks: beaten by Italy for the first time, lost to Ireland for the first time on home soil, lost to Argentina for the first time in Argentina and on a disastrous end of year European tour went winless, including a 16-point drubbing against England.
Their overall record for the year – played 12, won four, lost eight – 240 pts for and 329 against. Scarcely believable for such a proud rugby nation and the 1995 and 2007 Rugby World Cup winners.
After an exhaustive review Coetzee managed to hold on to his job for a second year, albeit with a revised management team, but will that be enough to reverse the Boks fortunes?
His compatriot at the Sevens, Neil Powell, was appointed in mid-2013, taking over from Paul Treu. The feeling under Treu was that the talented Blitzbokke squad was under performing. In his nine seasons in charge (2004-13) he won just one title (2008-09) and at the end the squad was judged to be trending down, leading to him being replaced by former scrum half Powell.
No one has deserved a title more than Powell. His team finished second in his first three years in charge and in his fourth they have won the title. They were also unlucky to finish third at the Rio Olympics when they were clearly the second best team in the tournament behind the majestic Fiji.
There are three pillars to Powell’s success: talent, depth and an experienced core leadership group, including some of the greatest.
Sevens players ever to play for their nation – Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Werner Kok, Chris Dry and captain Philip Snyman. The team also has a winning culture, a by-product of the factors above.
In stark contrast the Springboks are suffering a talent drain with many of their best players being tempted overseas due to the weak Rand. Just look at the Champions Cup winning Saracens team which had no less than six players in their 23 who began their careers in South Africa.
There are currently over 100 of South Africa’s best players plying their trade overseas.
Although many of these are available for the national team their absence greatly weakens the depth of the domestic competitions, limiting the development of SA based players, and adds a level of difficulty for Coetzee who must factor in the disruption of parachuting overseas based players into his team who have barely a week to get ready for a Test.
Of course Powell doesn’t have to worry about any of his players being nabbed for overseas Sevens leagues. There is only one Sevens World Series, run on international eligibility guidelines, and Cecil Afrika can’t run off to sign with England even if he wanted to.
Also the Blitzbokke are Sevens specialists so it’s unlikely that Super Rugby teams will come knocking on the door for their services.
The player drain in South African fifteens has decimated the leadership core of Coetzee’s team.
Last year’s captain Adriaan Strauss bizarrely announced his retirement from international rugby just a few months into his tenure.
Coetzee’s options of a new SA-based captain are Warren Whiteley, Handre Pollard, Pat Lambie, Francois Venter and Siya Kolisi – none of who fill you with any confidence except perhaps Whiteley.
But finally the difference may come down to team culture and whereas the Blitzbokke have a winning culture that players want to be a part of, the Boks now have a culture that players don’t necessarily want to be associated with, proud as the history of the Boks may be.
That culture lies squarely at Coetzee’s feet and it’s a department where he can certainly learn a lot from Powell.
The first step in righting the Bok ship would be for Coetzee to invite Powell to spend some time in the Bok camp, along with some of his leadership group.
Their presence and winning buzz could do nothing but good for the Bok cause.
France could host the All Blacks in a Test to be played in Dubai in November 2018, as part of a new Memorandum of Understanding signed today between UAE Rugby and the Federation Francaise de Rugby.
FFR president Bernard LaPorte was in Dubai today for the signing of the MoU and was excited about playing an international in the UAE.
“One of our objectives in signing this MoU is to organise games with the French team here in the UAE in the next couple of years” said Laporte.
“We also plan to welcome coaches and referees from the UAE in France at the national centre of in Marcoussis in order to support them to increase their own level. Also welcome some players in France and national team of the UAE.”
Qais Al Dhalai, the Secretary General of UAERF, confirmed plans for the historic test.
“The match will most probably be in 2018 at The Sevens or it might be at one of the bigger stadiums in Abu Dhabi or even Al Ain” said Dhalai.
“This would the first time in history that UAE has hosted a big game of Fifteens, Sevens of course but the first for Fifteens.”
Dhalai will now begin to finalise plans with France’s opponents.
“Now that the MOU has been signed we will communicate with the other union (to finalise details).”