Rugby in Ras Al Khaimah is finally on the rise after a few barren years

Matt Jones 16/06/2017
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It’s perhaps not so surprising that in a transient place like the UAE where expats come and go, so do sports teams.

Rugby was played in Ras Al Khaimah as long ago as 1969 but in the 36 years between the RAK Goats (now officially Rocks) being fully established as a club and today, the team has come and gone.

The foundations of the first club in the region were established in 1982 but when it was re-established most recently in 2013, there had been no official club in the Emirate for seven years.

But after a lot of hard work from outgoing chairman Mike Silvester and a season of stability in 2016/17, the ambitious club is beginning to put down roots and dream big.

“We want to push the club forward. Ras Al Khaimah as an Emirate is really pushing itself forward and we see ourselves as an integral part of that,” said Rocks chairman Simon Williams, 48, after a positive season both off and on the Rocks’ notorious sand pitch at the Bin Majid Resort.

The Rocks finished fourth out of nine teams in the third-tier Community League with five wins from eight games, 11 points off a top two spot which would have earned them a spot in the play-off final.

“We’ve started a mini and youth section this season and we’re looking at getting a women’s side together too. And in the future we’ll look to get a UAE Conference side as well as a Community League team. That’s what we’re building to.”

This time last year there were fears for the club’s future with a lack of stability and seeming inability to lay down roots dogging any progress.

But, thanks to generous support and hard work from Silvester and a number of new faces, including Williams, the future is as bright as the sand the team plays on.

Simon Williams.

Simon Williams.

“It’s not been too difficult this season but we have to work with a barter system as we’re not set up properly as a club,” added Williams, a sales director for an IT company who has been in the UAE eight years.

“That’s how we’ve had to work, kind of borrow things off people. We get water given to us and the sponsors give us the pitch. It’s nice having that sand pitch, we don’t have to pay for it, it’s been a great stepping stone, a base.

“But we want to build on it. Want to get it all sorted this summer. Then we can get some sponsors and get ourselves set up properly as a business. Luckily we have some good people on board so it’s all positive.

“That’s what it was all about this season, building a platform. We’ve got somewhere we can call home, temporarily at least. In two or three years we’ll have a permanent grass pitch instead of sand.”

Cambridge native Williams, who also plays for Rocks, has lived in RAK for three years, but only came on board at the club last season.

Had it not been for his curiosity upon seeing the unfamiliar sight of rugby posts sticking up from the sand of the Bin Majid Resort as he was driving past, he might not now be in the position of being chairman.

“I’ve been at club this season, like a lot of the players,” he said.

“Bizarrely I drove past the ground and said ‘those look like rugby posts’. I thought I’d find out and that’s how I found out about the club. We had a good social side, we’ve really pushed hard on that this season and that’s generated a lot of interest.

“People found out about us through word of mouth and before we knew it we had quite a few people turning up. It’s how the Dubai Sevens started.”

Among the huge cast of local supporters has been RAK’s ruler, His Highness Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, even if it has come at the cost of RAK having to change their name from Goats to Rocks.

And with those ties proving to be a positive, Williams insists the club can put its transient days behind them.

“You speak to the Sheikh and he wants clubs as part of it and expats and Emirati-led sport,” said Williams, who added that further ties are being created with the local schools as well as a plan to introduce an Emirati rugby programme.

“He seems keen to support us, we’ll have to change the club name in order to get that, but once we get that and the kids on board, they’ll bring people on board.

“A lot of us at the moment are just old blokes having fun. But there’s a few young players and we don’t want to lose them, we want to develop them.

“There’s a lot of things we can’t talk about but it’s about getting the club set up as a proper business and bringing it forward. Sponsorship, an Emirati programme, getting schools engaged. We’ve been going into the schools and doing training with volunteer coaches, and we’ll try and get more into local schools.

“We’re working with the UAE Rugby Federation so they’re sending Emirati coaches into the school, RAK Academy. We’re working together and they’re learning.”

The most obvious sign of progress this season has perhaps been the club’s recognition in April at the UAE Rugby Annual Awards, at which Williams received the Fair Play Team of the Season on behalf of the club.

“It’s really good to see because there’s been a lot of work going on into building the club,” he said. “And being recognised for that work is something we’re very proud of.”

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Jebel Ali Dragons' Niall Statham calls time on international career

Matt Jones 4/06/2017
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Niall Statham has called time on his UAE career

When the UAE took to the field to take on the might of Asia last month looking for a second-successive promotion, keen observers might have noticed that a very distinctive blue scrum cap was missing.

Said cap, belonging to former captain Niall Statham, was missing due to the fearless flanker actually deciding to call time on his international career before a ball was even kicked in Malaysia.

Being part of a UAE team looking to go for successive promotions following their lifting of the Asia Rugby Championship Division II title in May 2016 was something that had been driving Statham more than most.

Not only had the 31-year-old previously wrestled with the thought of retirement due to rugby’s increasing toll on the body as well as a young family to keep him busy – but the Scotsman missed virtually the entire 2016/17 season with injury, having torn ankle ligaments in the UAE’s successful ARC campaign in Uzbekistan.

It left the Jebel Ali Dragons flanker cursing the fact he was unable to play a significant part in early Henry Paul era after the former dual code star took the reins as Dragons head coach last summer.

It also left him with a sense of unfinished business at international level. Yet he began to realise over the course of the season, with the increasing depth of talent in the UAE ranks and rise of professionalism, that the time was perhaps right to put the eye-catching scrum cap in storage.

“It was a really difficult call but it was the best decision for me, my family and the team,” revealed Statham.

“The standard of playing and training is so high now you have to be fully committed to it. I didn’t feel I could give the team and coaches that whilst being there for my family.

“There were some more things I would have liked to achieve but I’m really thankful to Apollo (Perelini, UAE rugby performance manager) and the UAE Rugby Federation for all the experiences.

“The team is in fantastic shape and is full of talented players now who are younger, full of hunger and can launch it to the next level.”

Statham made his first appearance of the season for Dragons in February’s 25-22 West Asia Premiership defeat against Doha. He certainly didn’t look like a player who’d been absent for over half a season

Even though he is sad to have made the call to bring the curtain down on his career, Statham can be pleased with his contribution to the UAE – for whom he has earned 35 sevens caps and four for the senior 15 side.

“When I started the UAE had gone years without a Test win and were winless on the Asian 7s series; since then we scored a top eight finish in Asia, getting the respect of teams like Japan and Hong Kong,” added Statham.

“The 15s team were on a four-Test winning run and have been the highest climber in World Rugby. I’m really proud of where I’m leaving the system.

“Having played every game of sevens and 15s possible for UAE in the last three seasons it’s a good time to pass the torch. I discussed it a lot with Apollo and Mohammed Shaker (UAE team manager) and they’ve been really supportive.

“I’m also chatting to Henry about my role in Dragons next year whether it’s playing or coaching.”

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Lack of speed leaves UAE trailing in opponents' wake

Matt Jones 22/05/2017
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Apollo Perelini.

Euphoria was the overriding emotion 12 months ago. The UAE had just won their first-ever title as a fully-fledged rugby nation, strung together the longest unbeaten run in their brief history and earned promotion to Asia Rugby’s second tier.

Now, that fulfilling experience has been removed and all that is left is a feeling of emptiness. Apollo Perelini, his coaching staff and players must head back to the drawing board after a thoroughly wretched 2017 Asia Rugby Championship in which they followed three straight triumphs with three straight defeats.

Their campaign was blighted by a series of bad luck and bad judgement. Bullocking Number 8 Jaen Botes suffered concussion and broke his hand in the opening game, lively full-back Dan Bell broke his ankle, while Ryno Fourie missed the Sri Lanka game after being cited.

Hooker Josh Ives was extremely unfortunate to be sent off in that second game, which left the UAE with their backs against the wall to get anything out of the game, as well as with threadbare squad for the decider against the Philippines.

But the UAE’s discipline was sorely lacking throughout the tournament. At half time in their final game, they’d conceded 11 penalties. Against Sri Lanka there were 12 in the opening 40 minutes. Stats that are far too frequent to be a success at international level.

Handling errors were to be expected in the humid surroundings of the Far East, but they became a staple part of the UAE’s play as attacks constantly broke down.

And, inevitably, when they did concede possession, they were punished ruthlessly by the cunning and quickness their opponents possessed.

Above all else, pace was the biggest area in which the UAE were found wanting. All three opponents had rapid backs and devastating finishers who could score from anywhere on the field.

Malaysia’s marauding Fijian centre Jone Nasalo was their chief tormentor in game one, scoring a hat-trick. Fleet-footed Sri Lanka full-back Thilina Wijesinghe was the architect of their second defeat to the Brave Elephants.

And despite finding a more common ground against similar opponents in the Philippines and their powerful pack, the Volcanoes still possessed livewire backs Kevin Gordon, Justin Coveney and Patrice Olivier who could erupt at any moment.

Imad Reyal (l) was not part of the UAE squad in Ipoh

Imad Reyal (c) was not part of the UAE squad in Ipoh

The UAE squad was packed full of talent from the UAE Premiership. It was the best assembled in years. Yet genuine pace was lacking. Only darting Jebel Ali Dragons full-back/winger Fourie offered a genuine speed threat from deep – scoring two of their seven tries.

It was curious to see clubmate Imad Reyal omitted. The Sri Lankan-born full-back was part of the training squad but perhaps he was injured or simply overlooked, in favour of size.

A year ago, Dubai Exiles’ Charlie Sargent would have been a shoe-in for a place on the plane. Yet, much like Exiles 2016/17 campaign, the young flyer has failed to fizz, struggling for form and with injury.

Dubai Hurricanes’ Ian Overton, part of past UAE squads, was also left at home after a stop-start season.

Perelini has plenty of talented players at his disposal. Several will perhaps depart over the summer, but more will become available next year.

A year ago he bemoaned the lack of depth in his backs. And while the likes of Luke Stevenson, Kris Greene, Andy Powell and Sean Carey are welcome additions, in 2018 he must find some more finishers and pick a squad with greater balance.

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