The UAE will face the Philippines in a relegation decider on Saturday after they were again left to reflect on what might have been following a heartbreaking defeat to Sri Lanka.
Their opponents are known as the Brave Elephants but it was the fighting spirit of the UAE that must be commended as they battled valiantly through stifling conditions, and played half an hour with 14 men after Josh Ives’ harsh sending off.
Apollo Perelini’s men came into the game knowing only victory would suffice if they were to keep their dream of Asia Rugby Championship glory alive, but they were always up against it in their second Division I clash in Ipoh after falling behind to Fazil Marija’s try inside the opening minute.
They clawed their way back though and trailed just 18-17 at the break thanks to Andrew Powell’s try on the stroke of half time. However, Dubai Hurricanes hooker Ives was dismissed in the 50th minute, shown a second yellow card for a second dangerous tackle and given his marching orders by Singaporean referee Charlie Brown.
It should have perhaps signaled the end of their challenge yet they continued to pose an attacking threat with the 15 men of Sri Lanka who seemingly wilting the most in the heat. It was not until the 69th minute that their brave resilience was broken when an overlap sent flanker Jesan Dissanayake racing in for the killer score.
Marija’s early score caught the UAE cold in the blistering 30ºC Malaysian heat, with humidity at a stifling 85 per cent. Thilina Wijesinghe started the move, swathing through the UAE defence before sending Marija scampering over.
Luke Stevenson and Wijesinghe traded long distance penalties as Perelini’s men steadied their nerves. They survived a scare when Sri Lanka and Marija were denied a second score for a blatant forward pass.
Lock Sharo Kurukulasuriya was the first of four players to be sin-binned in the first half and with him off the field, the UAE took the lead.
Toby Oakeley cut in from his wing and, after vice captain Daniel Perry was held up after driving over, the UAE were awarded a scrum, from which Dubai Exiles skipper Glenn Moore sauntered over, Stevenson’s conversion putting his side 10-8 ahead.
Just like their opening try against Malaysia on Sunday, Sri Lanka’s response was swift.
They’re menacing pace ensured the UAE always had to be on their guard and centre Danuska Ranjan streaked past Oakeley, Dave Knight, Scott Hayes and Sean Carey to dive over superbly in the corner.
He injured himself in the process and went off with what looked like a dislocated shoulder, though Wijesinghe eased his pain with an inch perfect conversion from the touchline.
Ives then saw yellow for what was deemed a high tackle on winger Richard Dharmapala, although it was hardly reckless.
The UAE were down to 13 men when scrum-half Kris Greene joined Ives in the bin for a dangerous tip-tackle and were 18-10 down from the resulting penalty, but despite their disadvantage, they were hanging tough and went in just a point down at the break through a second try.
Wave after wave of forward drives battered the Lankan line before Powell cut a line and crashed over.
Stevenson added the conversion to make it 18-17 – although the usually ever-reliable Abu Dhabi Harlequins fly-half was left to rue three uncharacteristic misses from the tee prior to that that would have given them a 26-18 cushion.
Three minutes after the break, Sri Lanka made him pay when Dharmapala fielded Stevenson’s clearance kick on the touchline and launched an attack.
He seared past Hayes, stepped Oakeley before offloading to Marija who put Lee Keegal in for the score.
Then came the game’s turning point. Ives, doggedly defending, was again pulled up for a high tackle, which seemed incredulous seeing as he was deemed to have done so while on the floor.
Brown consulted with his touch judge and Ives was off.
It should have finished the UAE off too but it instead galvanised them. They survived one scare when the Brave Elephants trampled all over a potential breakaway with several handling errors.
Stevenson then combined with Hayes to set Oakeley free, but he knocked on with the line in sight. Ed Lewsey replaced Greene and injected more life into his side, darting across the field looking for gaps.
Eventually, they were overawed though with Dissanayake’s try signaling the end of their impressive resistance. Wijesinghe knocked over a penalty with seconds remaining to drive the final nail into the UAE’s chances of back-to-back promotions.
“It was a horrible start. Straight from the word go we were on the back foot,” bemoaned Perelini.
“It was a very frustrating game. We didn’t get off to a very good start, playing a few guys out of position, trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“We played five-10 minutes with just 13 men with two in the sin bin and then the last 30 minutes with 14 men against a very good attacking Sri Lankan team.
“Looking at the incidents, I’m not sure they warranted yellow cards, but it was very frustrating. On top of the weather and humidity, you just can’t do it. It was tough going.”
With dreams of the trophy dashed, thoughts must now turn to Saturday and the Philippines, who replaced the UAE at the bottom of the table after a 40-8 hammering at the hands of Malaysia.
A maiden win of the competition will at least deliver a silver lining of remaining in Division I.