There’s a friendly rivalry between the two nations’ popular sevens rugby tournaments, but there would have been plenty of keen eyes from Dubai on the weekend’s Hong Kong Sevens – where Olympic champions Fiji stormed to a fourth successive title.
Simon Amor’s England underperformed at the seventh round of the 2017/18 World Rugby Sevens Series, where they only finished 15th, alongside minnows South Korea to earn a solitary point.
But there would have been plenty of celebration 6,000 kilometres away in the UAE as a former Dubai Exiles player was making his international sevens bow for the Red Rose.
It’s been some journey already for 21-year-old Will Wilson, who capped his England Sevens debut in the most famous sevens tournament on the planet – Dubai organisers might well have something to say about that – with two tries.
Wilson, a traditional Number 8 who has come through the ranks at Oxford University and will become a fully-fledged member of Aviva Premiership side Wasps this summer – scored in a 47–7 blitz of Korea in the pool stages, before crossing the line in a 33-15 defeat to defending champions South Africa.
That loss meant England missed out on automatic qualification to the leading Cup knockout competition, with Amor’s men suffering more heartache as they first lost 17-14 to Australia in the Challenge Trophy quarter finals before being beaten 33-10 by Samoa in the 13th placed play-off.
Nevertheless, it would certainly have been another new experience to savour for Wilson, making the trip to Hong Kong amid Amor picking an inexperienced squad ahead of England’s participation at the Commonwealth Games Down Under next week.
But his is a true rugby odyssey that all started in Dubai 16 years ago, where he first got into rugby as a five-year-old, learning his craft under the guise of current Exiles chairman Mike Wolff.
“It was great to see Will go so well the first two days, especially against the Blitzbokke where he really brought his physicality to bear, culminating in finishing off a wonderful team try,” said Wolff, who fondly recalls introducing a much smaller version of Wilson to the game almost two decades ago.
“I’ve know his family for over 30 years; to see him do so well brings lots of memories back for me, especially as a young Exiles player when he and the rest of his age group dominated their peers in the UAE club mini and youth scene for many years.
“We are really proud of him. On the pitch and off it he is a great role model for all young Exiles players today. He works hard and deserves all the success and accolades heading his way.”
Wilson was making his World Series bow alongside Charlie Spawforth, George Chatterton and Charlie Kingham in Hong Kong.
And his breakthrough is another feather in the cap for a club that has a long tradition of moulding future talents.
Brothers Jordan and Devante Onojaife have made varying impacts for England powerhouses Northampton Saints, with Jordan winning the 2014 World Under 20 Championship with England, while Devante recently switched allegiance to Scotland and was named in their Six Nations championship squad at the start of the year.
Another club graduate is centre Tom Stapley, who left the Emirates in 2016 to seek a professional career with Ulster and earned selection for Ireland’s extended sevens training squad last year.
Rory Arthur, 18, has broken into the senior side this year, while fellow teenager Tom Williams, also 18, starred alongside Arthur on his first team debut as Exiles went down 47-25 to Bahrain in the West Asia Cup final two weeks ago.
“Exiles have produced a regular flow of young rugby stars who have gone on to do really well both here and overseas,” added Wolff.
“As both an experienced rugby coach and a teacher, our director of rugby Jacques Benade has a great way with younger players.
“We have successfully brought eight or nine schoolboys into senior Exiles rugby this past three years, and we are working hard using dedicated first team squad members to regularly coach our elder mini and youth teams to ensure they are getting the best possible rugby experience under his overall guidance at the club.
“It is clearly paying off, given the number of Exiles teams reaching their finals in the UAE’s mini and youth leagues.”
Ross Samson’s head was spinning on Friday night – and not just because he had been one of several players on either side left banged up by a brutally physical West Asia Cup semi-final clash between Jebel Ali Dragons and Dubai Exiles.
Dragons’ hopes of claiming a West Asia double were doused in a 31-20 defeat – a brilliant spectacle of UAE rugby that featured a red card for either side and two teams throwing everything they had at each other.
Deflated Dragons’ skipper Samson was left seeing stars by the final whistle, having taken a battering and suffering a possible concussion. But he praised Exiles – who go on to this Friday’s final against Bahrain – and insists he and his teammates must dwell on a positive 2017/18 campaign.
Dragons won the West Asia Premiership earlier this month in thrilling fashion – recording a 36-32 bonus point win in Bahrain a week earlier to snatch the title away from reigning champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins by just a point.
It was a first trophy for Dragons in four seasons and Samson insists that once the bruises from the Exiles encounter fade away, the league victory will last much longer in the memory.
“Everyone’s in agony after that, it was a ferocious game and we didn’t leave anything out on the pitch so we can be proud of that. And with the season too,” said the Scottish scrum-half.
“If you’d told me at the start of the season we’d be in the final of the (Dubai) Sevens and would win the league, we’d have probably taken it to be fair. It’s a tough league. Quins are good, Bahrain are class, these boys (Exiles) are very good.”
Quins rampaged to a quintuple of silverware last season, claiming the West Asia Premiership and Cup, winning the UAE Premiership and Sevens titles, as well as the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League crown in pre-season.
Exiles beat Dragons to the Dubai Sevens trophy in December, Quins won the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup earlier this month and retained the Champions League. The UAE Premiership will be contested between Quins and Exiles next month, while the West Asia Cup goes to either Bahrain or Exiles.
With Dragons’ Premiership win, it’s been a thrillingly competitive season. And Samson claims their Premiership triumph is the competition every team holds dearest.
“There’s a lot to play for but winning the league is the hardest because you have to be the most consistent team for the whole season,” he added.
“A cup would have been nice to finish the season but we’re happy with what we’ve done.”
It may have been a turbulent debut season for Dubai Eagles, but the fledgling side are dreaming of ending it with a trophy to bring home to the nest after blitzing Abu Dhabi Saracens to set up a West Asia Trophy final against Dubai Hurricanes.
Eagles stormed to a brilliant 53-7 win over Sarries on Friday at Dubai Sports City – earning just a second victory of their maiden campaign which also came over the Al Ghazal outfit, in September.
Eagles will now play Dubai Hurricanes on Friday, on the same day as Bahrain face Dubai Exiles in the final of the West Asia Cup.
The Trophy showpiece takes place at The Sevens, with Eagles relishing a chance to end their debut campaign with a trophy.
“It’s the first time we get the chance for a piece of silverware, in our first season, so we’ll be going all guns blazing for that,” said Eagles fly-half Sean Carey. “We’re really looking forward to finishing the season on a high.”
Although their first foray into domestic rugby has been a steep learning curve, Eagles have enjoyed playing Canes this season, going down 28-12 in their first West Asia Premiership clash in October and battling to a 36-23 defeat at home in February.
“We’re looking forward to another crack at Canes this weekend,” added Carey.
“We were disappointed with how we did when we had them at home, we thought we could do a lot better so it’ll be good to get another crack at them.”
Eagles will be buoyed heading into the final by the manner in which they put Sarries to the sword in Friday’s romp, with Carey revealing everything “clicked” for his side.
He said: “It was a good win. Everything seemed to click on the day. We’ve been training hard over the last few weeks and all came together for once this season.
“We had a lot of backs scoring the tries but the forwards set the platform and once that happened we started firing on all cylinders.”
The enthusiasm for having another crack at Canes, and with silverware at stake, is something driving Eagles ahead of the game, especially captain Conor Coakley, a former Canes player.
“Canes this weekend is huge and something that’s been on our radar for some time,” said the back rower.
“We’ve lost twice to them in two hard-fought games so we really want a shot at them and a trophy, and we’re buzzing for it. They will be too so we’re really looking forward to it.”
And the affable Irishman was pleased with a perfect performance against Sarries, likening Eagles’ performance to Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning Six Nations team.
“A lot of the systems we’ve been working on for the last few months with coach Andrew O’Driscoll have come to fruition now,” he added.
“It’s a bit late at the end of the season, but it’s still good. A lot of the link-up play was similar to Ireland winning the Grand Slam, with forwards popping up in the backs and throwing no-look passes. I was really happy with our performance.”
A delegation of Eagles players, meanwhile, will be heading to Sri Lanka after Friday’s game on a charity initiative, donating club kits to schoolchildren in the country.
Carey said of that initiative: “We’ve got the game on Friday and after that a few of us from the club are off on a charity trip to Sri Lanka, to give some jerseys to kids, delivering them to a school out there.”