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.
Jebel Ali Dragons are among the first clubs to start planning for next season by announcing Henry Paul as the club’s new director of rugby, while Stuart Quinn is the new chairman.
Former New Zealand rugby league and England union international Paul, 43, arrived at Dragons last summer as head coach, an impressive coup pulled off by outgoing director of rugby, Paul Hart.
Along with Jonny MacDonald and Andy Buist, the ex-Wigan Warriors and Bradford Bulls player revived the sleeping Dragons, who ended the season fighting Abu Dhabi Harlequins for the UAE Premiership title.
It was the beginning of a new chapter for the Jebel Ali outfit who had endured two seasons of struggle since winning back-to- back trebles in 2012/13 and 2013/14.
Dragons finished fourth in the West Asia Premiership this past season and finished runners-up to Quins in both the Premiership and Dubai
Sevens to signal their revival – while their third team won the Community League.
“We have asked Henry to now take on a role as director of rugby as we look to try and bring through our other coaches Jonny MacDonald and
Andy Buist and successfully recruit players but also to try and raise the level of the club again,” said 37-year- old Quinn, who will replace long-
serving Welshman Mike Lewis as Dragons’ chairman.
“His role on the committee will be invaluable to us in terms of taking the next step as a club. Henry will still be very much involved in coaching
the side but he will start to add his experience in other areas.
“His impact as a leader this year can be defined no better by the fact we have eight players (the most of any club) representing the UAE in Maylasia (at the Asia Rugby Championship) this week.”
Briton Quinn, a former UAE international who represented the Emirates in the 2011 Asian Five Nations, their first tournament as a stand alone
Test nation, heaped praise on Lewis and Hart, both of whom will remain part of the club’s fabric.
“It’s an incredible honour to have been chosen as chairman for the forthcoming season,” said Quinn, who has lived in the UAE for 14 years.
“Mike Lewis has done a fantastic job steering the club through some choppy waters and deserves a huge amount of credit along with Paul Hart for bringing Henry Paul to us and for being part of a turnaround at the club last year.
“Three finals and a trophy is a great achievement from where the club was two years ago having lost such a core group of players. I think the
roles of Henry and myself are to take that one step further next year and build on some great foundations.”
Dragons will celebrate 25 years as a club in 2017/18 and despite definite progression with Paul at the helm, Quinn says more strides need to be
taking and he is excited for the future.
“In terms of next season I think it’s going to be tougher than ever due to the fact that the landscape of rugby in the Gulf has changed
dramatically in such a short space of time,” added the former Dragons and Dubai Exiles player.
“The players are of such a high standard across the board now and the coaching set-ups are superbly organised and there really isn’t a huge gap
between the top and bottom teams.
“Our job in the off-season is to look at recruiting more players as people move on and out of the rugby scene but also to try to build a club that
can offer something for all levels and be able to support that administratively as well as on the field.
“Player welfare is more important than ever these days. We also want to work with the other clubs to continue to raise the standard of rugby
here in the Middle East. For the good of rugby I think it’s vital we all work closer together.
“This year marks Jebel Ali Dragons’ 25 years as a club in the Gulf so we have a lot planned on and off the field which is great to look forward to. We have recently rebranded our logo, are launching a new website and had a new club house built for us which is all exciting stuff.
“We have again been supported by Hesco, our title sponsor, who have committed to the club long term. It’s vital for any club’s survival that
companies continue to support rugby in the region and we are incredibly thankful for that.
“The season will be upon us in no time no doubt so we will have a busy summer getting ourselves in shape for when it all starts again.”
Daniel Perry insists he is not crestfallen by the UAE’s opening loss in the 2017 Asia Rugby Championship and says he and his teammates need only look to conquerors Malaysia for inspiration on how Division I championship can still be theirs.
The UAE put in a spirited performance in Ipoh on Sunday only to be beaten by a Jone Mosalo-inspired Malaysia who ran out 36-22 winners.
The margin of defeat was harsh on Apollo Perelini’s men – a late Sakiusa Gavidi try giving the final scoreline a flattering hue as far as Lee Nyuk Fah’s hosts were concerned.
A year ago, however, Malaysia were in the same position as the men from the Emirates – beaten 15-10 by the Philippines in Kuala Lumpur.
Yet they rallied to defeat Sri Lanka and Singapore in their next two games to finish top of the Division I table with 11 points, two ahead of the Brave Elephants.
And vice captain Perry is adamant all is not lost.
“Malaysia won the whole thing last year and lost their first game, so we’re certainly not out of it yet,” stated Perry defiantly.
“Let’s see how we go from here. The lads are still going, still positive, and it’s onto the next one.”
Next up for Perry and Co are Sri Lanka – the division’s top ranked team at number 39 in the world.
The UAE are the lowest ranked of all four teams taking part in Division I this year, but Perry is steadfast in his belief that they showed enough signs in defeat to still win a second straight title after storming to the Division II crown a year ago.
“We can take positives from the game, the scrum went well and the lineouts were OK,” added the Dubai Hurricanes’ lock.
“They (Malaysia) didn’t create anything, we gave it to them so we have got things to improve on and that’s good.
“We’re going to watch it back, but we’re not going to blame anyone else. The heat was bad and the ref was up and down but at the end of the day it was our mistakes that cost us and we’re very aware of that.”