The biggest regret of Matthew Pewtner’s promising but ultimately brief rugby career was that he never got to feature for Wales at the Dubai Sevens.
The sevens specialist played nine tournaments around the world on the glamorous sevens circuit but injury robbed of him an appearance at one of the most popular. So it is with a wry smile the rugby talent turned coach and school teacher speaks about his new role as Dubai Hurricanes backs coach at training at the Sevens Stadium on the eve of the 2017/18 rugby campaign – in the shadow of the very venue he’d always dreamed of playing in.
Concussion forced Pewtner, 26, to quit rugby 18 months ago after medical advice, having represented Wales at sevens and under-20 level – as well as nearly 50 appearances for the Newport-based Dragons from 2009-16.
The former winger admitted he was “lost” for a few months after reality bit that he would never be allowed to play competitively again. But then he took the plunge and accepted a teaching post at GEMS World Academy. That led to him getting in contact with Canes and he’s quickly become a member of the club’s family.
“Unfortunately my career got cut short and I was a bit lost for a few months, I didn’t really know what to do,” recalled Pewtner.
“But then I decided to take the plunge and come to Dubai. I got a good job teaching in GEMS and I sent an email to the Canes as it looked like a really good set-up, asking if there were any coaching opportunities as it was something I’d been doing alongside my teaching career and something I want to do in the future.
“Fortunately they were in the market for a coach so it’s been quite a nice transition.
“I’ve been here five weeks and it’s been great. The school has helped, I’ve met a lot of friends there, but the biggest help has probably been coming to the Canes.
“Rugby is a game you can play anywhere in the world and as soon as you’re in a team part of a family straight away. It’s the nature of the game.”
The irony of putting nearly 50 players through their paces at The Sevens’ Pitch 2 – just a stone’s throw from the main Sevens Stadium, which will be teaming with rugby fans from around the world in just two months’ time – isn’t lost on Pewtner.
“One of my biggest regrets is not playing in the Dubai Sevens having been selected twice,” added the Newport native, whose career was cut short after he failed to recover from a head injury he suffered during the Premiership Sevens in August 2015.
“I signed with the Dragons when I was 17. When I was 21 I had a dual developmental contract with the Dragons and Wales. And over two seasons I did nine sevens tournaments.
“I did all of them except Dubai. I got selected for Dubai but before the one I pulled my hamstring and then the following year I broke my thumb so injury stopped me from coming here. I did Wellington, Hong Kong, Vegas, Japan, South Africa and the UK ones and France too.
“The first time (I missed out on Dubai) in particular was a regret as I’d just had a really good pre-season, was really fit and it was a really good time for me in my sevens career. The hamstring went a day before we flew and I’d always wanted to play in the Dubai Sevens.
“It’s weird a few years later I’m coaching the team next door to the stadium I should have played in. I’m doing the next best thing.”
The 15s format of the game takes precedence for Canes now – who are looking to improve after a few seasons in the wilderness but with confidence high under director of rugby Mike Werhham.
And Pewtner is happy to be part of a club looking to improve in all formats – with an eye especially on the Sevens where he’ll lend his sevens expertise to Canes, as well as coaching his school side.
“I’ll look forward to it now as a coach and I’ve heard it’s one of the best weekends of the year out here,” he said.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing a lot of old faces. Obviously I know the Welsh boys but also I know a lot of the players from other countries so it will be really good to see some familiar faces. I will be coaching Canes and also my school team. It’s going to be a good weekend.”
Having lived and breathed rugby as a day job for most of his adult life, Pewtner admitted he didn’t have too much knowledge of the popularity of the sport in the UAE. But he revealed he’s been hugely impressed with the Canes set-up since his arrival earlier this summer.
“Obviously when I played it was our job so we worked and trained every day,” he said.
“But it’s really nice to see here that even though the boys train twice a week, they’re putting in the hours away from the paddock in the gym too and when we’re here, it may only be an hour and a half but it’s a really good quality hour and a half.
“As a management team we structure our trainings really well and they are planned accurately so there’s no time wasted and we make the most of all the time we get on the field.
“I think the set-up is really good, really professional, I’d be surprised if there’s a more professional set-up than what we have.
“I was a bit surprised turning up the standard. The biggest shock was the sheer numbers. Back in Wales the game is the national sport but even local teams there would have 20 boys at training and that would be a good number.
“I turned up here at my first session and there was 45 players, which was awesome. And players from all over the world too, northern and southern hemisphere players, loads of people coached very differently, so it’s nice bringing them together.
“The standard is really high and hopefully as coaches we can take them to their highest potential.”
The sign on the door of the number two changing room at Dubai Sports City read ‘Welcome DSC Eagles’, and UAE rugby’s newest club might well feel like they truly arrived after recording the first win in their history on Friday night.
True, it was only their second game, so it’s not as if they’ve been waiting years for an elusive triumph. But many critics probably expected Dubai Eagles to go their maiden season without tasting victory – especially after they had their wings clipped on their competitive debut a week ago, thrashed 85-8 by Dubai Exiles.
Not captain Conor Coakley though, who got out of bed on the morning of the game believing his side were going to win. The Irishman’s eyes danced as he savoured his prediction coming true at the final whistle.
“Honestly, no,” said the flanker when asked if Eagles’ maiden win had come sooner than expected. It might not have been anticipated at all in their debut campaign by some within the club.
“I thought we’d get a win this season. After what I’ve seen over the last few weeks at training, the guys have a belief in what we’re doing. I got up this morning and I felt it. ‘Yeah, we’re gonna win’. And we’ll have more.
“It was gritty. It was tough up front. They have a very strong pack and it was physical, there was a lot of dog work. And I haven’t played 80 minutes of rugby in about two years, so I’m feeling it now.”
Victory for either side on Friday would have been hugely significant. Eagles were formed less than three months ago and held their first training session a little over six weeks ago – with seven attendees.
Sarries, meanwhile, may be a little older, they were formed in 2011. But it’s been a trying summer with the loss of their home ground. They don’t actually have a head coach either after Winston Cowie stepped down in the summer.
The New Zealander hasn’t defected to another club though, like many stars from previous years. He has work and family commitments keeping him busy but he will still feature as a player.
And the Kiwi, who plunged over the whitewash for Sarries’ only try, believes better is to come for a side which is determined to stay alive this season.
“It’s a game we should have won,” said Cowie, who earned his first UAE cap earlier this year.
“It was scrappy and I think the result shows we’re lacking a little bit of depth. But we had 15 players on the pitch and a full bench, we’ve got two teams playing this season. We’ve got a few boys who’ve put in a huge recruitment drive this summer and have really kept the club together.
“Perhaps we’re not there yet on the performances but we’ve got a bunch of guys here who enjoy playing rugby and like to play for each other, and hopefully the results will come.”
Although Sarries led a scrappy encounter just 3-0 at the break, it looked as if the result would have been theirs. Their scrum was dominant and centre Stephen Hamilton was clinical from the tee while Eagles’ kicker Sean Carey was wasteful when the opportunities came his way – the Irishman fluffed three attempts to level the scores.
Head coach Pat Benson must have delivered an inspiring team talk at the interval though as Eagles took flight as soon as the whistle went to signal the restart.
Just 26 seconds of the second period had passed before the game’s first try arrived – full-back Jamie Williams’ blistering run creating the space and Carey atoned for his earlier errors as he was on the shoulder to take the killer pass that sent him scurrying over for the opening try.
He converted from right in front to make it 7-3. There was barely time to blink before Eagles doubled their lead. And the same two combined to bamboozle Sarries. Williams again started the attack and cut through the defence before Carey was in the right place at the right time to once again go under the sticks. It was 14-3 and Eagles were beginning to flow forward with confidence.
But Sarries weathered the storm and reduced the gap when Cowie crashed over after a bout of pressure – Hamilton just wide with the conversion attempt.
Eagles were beginning to wilt in the humid conditions but the heat was also causing the visitors difficulties, with the ball being dropped like a bar of soap.
Carey and Hamilton exchanged penalties and Sarries’ chances of a comeback were dealt a blow when their influential director of rugby was harshly sin-binned for a high tackle.
Still, they had chances to find a killer score, but their attacks were thwarted by dropped passes or cheap penalties given away.
With a scrum awarded to Eagles near the Sarries line with the last play of the game signaled, scrum-half Josh Ives calmly fed the ball into the now dominant Eagles forwards and then passed to Tom Bright who kicked the ball into touch for a famous victory this fledgling Eagles family won’t forget in a hurry.
With the local rugby season upon us we have the lowdown on each team aiming to compete for the West Asia Premiership title.
From the key players to our predictions for the year, we have you covered.
Who do you think will win?
Coach: Louie Tonkin
Home ground: Bahrain RFC
Captain: Adam Wallace
Key player: Elliot Behan
Last season: West Asia Premiership 3rd, West Asia Championship 2nd
Sport360° prediction: Made great progress under Tonkin in his debut campaign and, with new faces arriving and a lot of injured stars returning to the ranks, expect them to be a major contender for trophies
UAE Premiership: N/A
West Asia Premiership: 2nd
Dubai Sevens: Quarter-finals
Coach: Henry Paul
Home ground: JACOE
Captain: Ross Samson
Key player: Matt Henry
Last season: West Asia Premiership 4th, UAE Premiership 2nd
Sport3600 prediction: Came on leaps and bounds last season under Paul and are set to make more strides, with exciting signings said to have arrived. Fell short of silverware last season but 2017/18 could be different.
UAE Premiership: 2nd
West Asia Premiership: 3rd
Dubai Sevens: Final
Coach: Pat Benson
Home ground: Dubai Sports City
Captain: Conor Coakley
Key player: Sean Carey
Last season: N/A
Sport3600 prediction: The new boys are an unknown quantity but it will surely be a season of struggle for them, with their opponents well ahead. Being competitive and earning a handful of wins would be seen as a good campaign for the debutants.
UAE Premiership: 6th
West Asia Premiership: 7th
Dubai Sevens: Pool stages
Coach: Jacques Benade
Home ground: The Sevens
Key player: Durandt Gerber
Last season: West Asia Premiership 5th, UAE Premiership 4th
Sport3600 prediction: Have recruited well over the summer and will be hard-pressed to be as bad as they were last season. Head coach Benade will be upset if they don’t win at least one trophy from the four on offer.
UAE Premiership: 1st
West Asia Premiership: 4th
Dubai Sevens: Semi-finals
Coach: Mike McFarlane
Home ground: Zayed Sports City
Captain: Ben Bolger
Key player: Luke Stevenson
Last season: West Asia Premiership 1st, UAE Premiership 1st, Dubai Sevens winners
Sport3600 prediction: Where do they go after they won everything last year? Surely they can’t be as untouchable as last season. Have lost some key players but undoubtedly remain the team to beat.
UAE Premiership: 3rd
West Asia Premiership: 1st
Dubai Sevens: Winners
Coach: Mike Wernham
Home ground: The Sevens
Captain: Dave Knight
Key player: Josh Elliot
Last season: West Asia Premiership 6th, UAE Premiership 5th
Sport3600 prediction: A perennial struggler for the last two seasons but finally settled under Wernham, who has added structure and confidence. Have their work cut out but are an outside bet for a trophy
UAE Premiership: 4th
West Asia Premiership: 5th
Dubai Sevens: Semi-finals
Home ground: N/A
Captain : Johnny Taylor
Key player: Stephen Hamilton
Last season: West Asia Premiership 7th, UAE Premiership 6th
Sport3600 prediction: It’s been a tumultuous summer for Sarries, but vibes coming from within the club are refreshingly positive. They won’t trouble the top teams but will be happy to be competitive
UAE Premiership: 5th
West Asia Premiership: 6th
Dubai Sevens: Quarter-finals