Apollo Perelini says he has been hugely encouraged by the hunger being shown by his UAE squad despite the fact the domestic rugby season in the Emirates is over.
The 2016/17 campaign culminated with the UAE Rugby Finals Day at Dubai Sports City on April 7, but a select few will be heading east to Malaysia as the UAE look to win the Asia Rugby Championship’s Division II.
Perelini has been training with his squad since the first few weeks of 2017 but his players will get their first test tomorrow (Friday) when the face a UAE Conference XV at The Sevens.
And despite being near the end of a long, arduous season and with the temperatures in the Emirates starting to rise as summer approaches, Perelini says there has been no sign of slacking from his 32-man squad.
“They’ve been so keen. You can tell by the attitude, there’s a bit of swagger about them and they’re a close group,” said the New Zealander.
“Right from the word go they were able to bond even though they were playing against each other for their clubs. To train over the time, they’ve got a really nice bond and the camaraderie amongst them is excellent.
“Like I said before we’re stronger than last year. We have some of the top players in the Premiership in the squad and putting them together has been a pleasure and quite enjoyable for me and my coaching staff.
“But We won’t really know how far we’ve come until we’ve played the game against the Conference side.”
And he’s expecting a tough test against the best the Conference has to offer.
“I’m hoping it’s a really good test,” he said.
“I’ve asked the coaches to pick the best players and I hope it’s a really good game for our build-up for the tournament. We’re going to use it to see how our systems have come on, how they get used to them and how we play under pressure.”
Five of Perelini’s current roster will be dropped after their second friendly, against a Premiership XV next Friday, as the former dual-code star trims his touring party to 27.
And the former dual code Samoa international admits culling five players will be tough.
“There’s a few players I haven’t seen enough of,” he added.
“They’ve not played enough games for clubs so I want to give them a chance and these two games are a chance to show me what they can do.”
Preparations are well underway for next month's trip to Asia but first Apollo Perelini's side contest two tough friendly outings against a UAE Conference Select XV at The Sevens on Friday, before facing a UAE Premiership Select XV next week in Sharjah.
The UAE have been training twice a week in the build up to these matches, with Bolger set to lead the team as captain in Malaysia.
Sport360 caught up with the squad as they fine tuned their skills in Dubai.
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.”