The UAE’s historic three-match unbeaten run came to an end as they were defeated by hosts Malaysia in a pulsating opening 2017 Asia Rugby Championship Division I encounter that could have swung either way.
Camped deep in Malaysia territory, trailing by seven having just fought their way back into the game through Kris Greene’s try, the game’s turning point arrived 10 minutes from time when Apollo Perelini’s men were penalised at their own scrum five metres out where a tying score had looked inevitable.
Instead, the under siege hosts cleared their lines and put the game to bed a few minutes later when UAE torturer Jone Nasalo rampaged his way into space and put centre partner Sakiusa Gavidi in for the game-clinching try.
It was a victory that Lee Nyuk Fah’s deserved overall, although the 14-point margin of it flattered his side.
UAE head coach Perelini admitted Malaysia played well, but thought his team could have been better.
“It was a frustrating game. There were some areas in which we could have been a little bit better,” said the New Zealander.
“It was very humid out there, it was unbelievable, but it was the same for both teams. The ball was like soap. We didn’t adapt to the conditions as well as we could have. There were a lot of mistakes, a lot of dropped balls. They scored some tries against the run of play and off minute mistakes, which cost us.
“But the boys stayed positive and knew they could claw their way back. I think overall the game got away from us too early. When you sit two tries behind in the first half it’s always going to be difficult, especially with the conditions and when you start pushing things.
“You make more mistakes and they had their tails up. They played well and I think we could have played better. We’re very disappointed. I’m gutted.
“I’m not one for relying on others to do the job for us, I really wanted to come here and do well in all three games, so it was disappointing. But the boys worked hard and were unlucky.”
It is a game the UAE will look back and reflect on what might have been, with the contest littered by handling errors and mistakes which were fully exploited by Malaysia and man of the match Nasalo in-particular.
The monstrous outside centre opened the scoring after 15 minutes when he chipped ahead in his own 22 and received a kind bounce of the ball to beat Sean Carey and streak home despite the attention of Greene.
Perelini’s charges’ response was instant though. Jebel Ali Dragons’ Ryno Fourie, on as an early replacement for injured clubmate Dan Bell, alerted Andrew Powell to a quick lineout. The Dubai Hurricanes man sprinted 70 metres and found the supporting Fourie alongside him when the cover came – the South African replacement touching down and Luke Stevenson leveling the scores.
They had a lucky escape when Ben Bolger’s dropped pass sent Malaysia clear but bad hands from the hosts allowed the defence to scramble and avert danger.
However, they did not heed that warning and after another error, Nasalo was alert to gather and dash clear to the line. There was another lucky escape when Dave Knight avoided a sin-bin for taking out Mohammedd Abdin after chipping ahead, Mohammed Fairuz bisected the posts to minimise the punishment and Stevenson’s own penalty saw the UAE trail just 17-10 at the break.
Their hard work to get back in the contest was undone minutes into the second period though when Nasalo, the thorn in their side, completed his hat-trick.
A cross-field kick from Mohammed Asraf was collected by winger Wong Wye who made ground before offloading to Nasalo who outpaced the last man to seal a memorable treble. A superb conversion from Fairuz stretched the lead to 24-10.
The UAE would not lie down though and after Asraf was sin-binned for a high tackle on Rikus Swart, who had looked destined to score after darting for the corner, his Abu Dhabi Saracens teammate Jaen Botes powered over from the resulting scrum, Stevenson narrowly wide with a difficult touchline conversion.
Back came the hosts with a bonus point score, Wye fighting his way to the line and touching down despite a desperate attempt by Dan Perry to stop him.
Just as they began to believe they would pull clear again, back came the pesky UAE to really make a fist of proceedings. Botes was again instrumental as he peeled off the scrum and put scrum-half Greene in for a deserved try.
Stevenson this time nailed a brilliant conversion out wide and the UAE began to sense the game was theirs for the taking.
They received the ball straight back as Singaporean referee Just Wang awarded a penalty for a late hit on Green after scoring and Perelini’s players swarmed forward.
Their handling was slick as they switched the ball from forwards to backs and went through the phases. Malaysia’s defence was creaking but just as the UAE look poised to strike from a five metre scrum, they were penalised and Malaysia’s relief was clear.
The ebb and flow to the game failed to yield but Fah’s men landed the killer blow, predictably, through Nasalo. His step sent him into the clear and when the last tackle came he calmly fed Gavidi who swan dived over for the crucial score.