Apollo Perelini believes his UAE side that will begin the fight for a place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup next month at the Asia Rugby Championship is twice as good as the team that stormed to Division I promotion a year ago.
Perelini’s UAE smashed hosts Uzbekistan 63-13 in the ARC Division II semi-final last May before dismantling Thailand 70-18 in the final in Tashkent to earn promotion back to Asia Rugby’s second tier.
Now in Division I, they will compete with Sri Lanka, the Philippines and hosts Malaysia next month.
The winners of this year’s Division I tournament will then advance to the Top 3 Challenge play-off which will see them face the loser of the ARC Top 3 – either Japan, Hong Kong or South Korea – later this year for a chance to not only enter the Top 3 next season but also the final round of Asia qualification for the World Cup in two years’ time.
And, buoyed by their success a year ago and with an injection of talent newly qualified to represent the UAE this season, Perelini is confident heading into the Division I tournament in Ipoh, where the UAE start against the hosts on May 14.
“Confidence is high after last year. The squad is probably twice as strong as last year,” said UAE Rugby performance manager Perelini, who has been training every Saturday with his squad for much of 2017.
“We have a very, very strong backline and forwards. We were strong in the forwards last year and maybe lacked a bit of depth in the backs, but now we have some very good Premiership backs and we’ve got the best of all the clubs. We have the luxury of picking from all the best clubs.”
Perelini was able to call up Abu Dhabi Harlequins heartbeat Ben Bolger a year ago, and the talismanic flanker who slotted straight into a vice captain role is likely to be in good company if selected for the final 27-man squad in the coming weeks.
Luke Stevenson, Quins’ game-managing fly-half, has reached eligibility this season, and has been training with the UAE at The Sevens.
Dubai Exiles skipper and Number 8 Glenn Moore, Jebel Ali Dragons scrum-half Kris Greene and Dubai Hurricanes fly-half Andrew Powell are just a few of the names who have also recently qualified and could be on the plane to Malaysia.
All this is hugely promising for Perelini as the UAE go in search of their dream of qualifying for Japan 2019 – however unlikely.
Perelini has already shorn his squad to 32, with five more names to be culled before heading east.
The New Zealand former dual code Samoa international gave his players a weekend off on Saturday following the UAE Rugby Finals Day, but things will intensify with two training sessions per week from this Saturday.
The UAE will also play two warm-up games before jetting off to Malaysia, against a UAE Conference XV at The Sevens on Saturday, April 21, and a UAE Premiership XV at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club following the Sharjah 10s on April 28.
“I just really want the boys to play together. We’ve trained well over the last couple of months but you can train as much as you like, you can’t see what’s wrong, what your strengths are, what you need to improve on,” Perelini added.
“Mike (McFarlane, Quins head coach) will get together with some of the other coaches to collaborate on a Premiership side, so that will be a strong test. I want that to be a real good game to test my players and our structures.
“The Premiership game will be played in Sharjah. I think it’s good to get it out of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and visit some of the other Emirates.”