The country’s non-participation in the Asia Rugby Championship this year may have put a dampener on the end of the rugby season for many players, but Craig Nutt will still be honoured to pull on the green, white, red and black of the UAE on Friday.
UAE Rugby chiefs announced in March that the nation would not be participating at this year’s Division I ARC, set to take place in the Philippines in June, meaning they would not be competing in the end of season internationals for the first time as a standalone nation since the 2011 Asian Five Nations.
UAE players had competed internationally prior to that against other Asian countries as part of the Arabian Gulf team since the 2008 Asian Five Nations – but this year marks a break of not competing for the first time in a decade, and for as yet unexplained reasons.
The UAE will instead play a one-off fixture against Gibraltar in Dubai on Friday. And despite the fact he will not earn an official cap for featuring, Abu Dhabi Harlequins prop Nutt cannot wait to make his debut for his adopted nation.
“I’ve said all along it was in my sights, it was my target to get a UAE cap,” said Nutt, who arrived in the Emirates in the summer of 2014, winning the West Asia Championship with former club Abu Dhabi Saracens in his debut campaign.
“Obviously this isn’t a capped game but it will hopefully put me in good stead for next year when the caps are available.
“It has been a bit thrown together at the last minute, they told us about a week ago the game was going on and asked us to go training. I’m more than happy to go along.”
The shock news not to take a team to Manila brought an abrupt end to several years of impressive progress under the tutelage of Apollo Perelini and Roelof Kotze before him.
The UAE were set for another crack at Division I this year after finishing bottom last year following spirited defeats to Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines – but they were spared relegation, whetting the appetite for another promotion push for the ARC.
It was a far cry from losing a relegation play-off to Singapore in April 2014 that saw the UAE drop down to Asia’s third tier. They almost bounced back at the first attempt in 2015 before trouncing Uzbekistan and Thailand in 2016 to earn promotion to Division I – there were even faint hopes a year ago that the UAE could qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Now, the future of the country is up in the air again with the decision not to travel east leaving everyone in limbo.
But with a view to hopefully earning a maiden cap next year, Nutt insists he and the rest of this year’s talented squad are going to enjoy Friday’s game.
“I’m looking forward to it and it’s going to be an honour to play for the UAE,” said the 33-year-old Welshman.
“Training was really good (on Saturday). There’s a good calibre of player there so it was fun. The mood in the camp is good and it’s always good fun meeting up with boys you usually play against every week and seeing how they play and how we gel.”
The UAE take on Gibraltar at Dubai Sports City on Friday evening, which will bring a brief but busy tour for the visitors to an end following four fixtures in the space of five days.
Gibraltar lost 33-19 to Dubai Exiles on Monday night and then beat a Dubai Eagles Select XV 20-5 on Tuesday night. They play the UAE Barbarians on Thursday before the final fixture with the UAE.
The fire still burns bright within Paul Hart, but having been an important part of the team that returned Jebel Ali Dragons to prominence this season, the veteran felt it was an apt time to bring the curtain down on his career.
It has been a colourful one too, including a brief playing stint professionally back home in the UK for Worcester Warriors, while Hart also earned England Students caps in both rugby union and league.
He played in Sydney and New York before coming to Dubai in 2010 in a bid to expand his recruitment business – and his eight-year spell in the Emirates has seen him intertwine himself in the fabric of a club and a sport that has progressed greatly in the last decade.
The UAE formed their own union in 2012, with Hart earning eight caps for his adopted nation under the guidance of former dual code Samoa star Apollo Perelini, while ex-New Zealand league and England union international Henry Paul was his coach at club level.
Hart was a prominent part of Dragons’ back to back treble-winning seasons in 2012/13 and 2013/14. There have been some lean times since, but a prolonged trophy drought was ended last month when Dragons beat Bahrain 36-32 to claim the West Asia Premiership title after a thrilling, closely contested campaign.
Hart turned 40 days before the final league game of the season and felt the landmark occasion, plus a first piece of silverware in four years, was the right time to hang up the boots.
“After 30 straight seasons I am happy to confirm I am retiring,” said Hart.
“I had my 40th birthday a few weeks ago and we clinched the West Asia Premiership so now is the right time.
“The West Asia Premiership is the one that all clubs want. It is the hardest to win as it requires consistent performances over a seven-month period.
“We have gone unbeaten away from home, which is no mean feat when you consider that Abu Dhabi Harlequins hadn’t lost at home for nearly four years and Bahrain two years.
“All of the clubs are very equal and competitive, so anyone can beat anyone on their day. That is why winning the Premiership is so much harder than a cup with one or two matches.
“Going nine wins and two loses in this highly competitive league is something we are very proud of as a club.”
Hart won his first UAE caps on the 2015 Asia Rugby Championship tour to Malaysia, going on to win eight in total as he featured again in Uzbekistan in 2016 and last year, again in Malaysia.
After showing signs of returning to prominence in Paul’s maiden campaign in 2016/17, Dragons roared back to life this year – fighting for UAE rugby’s major honours with Quins, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain.
Hart’s role was briefer this term than it had been previously, yet he remained an integral part of the club’s success – even playing the majority of the West Asia Cup semi-final defeat to Exiles at the end of March.
It was his very final game in the blue jersey after saying the Premiership finale against Bahrain weeks earlier would be his swansong.
“I started every single game last season (2016/17) for both Dragons and the UAE, which I was chuffed about,” said Hart.
“Being able to play tight-head prop at my ripe old age, stay injury free and get picked in front of quality players, was something to be proud of.
“This season, quiet rightfully, I have shared my time between the bench and a starting spot. Realistically, the starts have come when I have been covering for one of our injured, younger props.
“One of these games was our home victory against Bahrain where I played the full game. After 60 minutes our prop replacement came on so I started to leave the pitch, only to be called back as it was our 23-year-old prop who was going off.
“That was a great win against a brilliant team. HP (Paul) tried to bring me off in the 78th minute to stop me being able to brag about completing 80 minutes.”
But brag he should, after a career that has included playing professionally, representing two countries and featuring on four of the world’s seven continents.
Despite a storied three decades in the game, Hart insists Dragons has been his favourite experience.
“To play the last eight years of my rugby at Jebel Ali Dragons has been an honour,” said Hart.
“I have been lucky enough to play for six great clubs across four continents and the Dragons has easily been the best experience.
“Everyone is welcome at Dragons and the whole club make a massive fuss of any new player. It’s a proper family away from home for all the expats, the boys can’t do enough to help anyone who joins.
“During my time I have played with many outstanding players such as Andy Russel, Byron Kramer, Sean Crombie and Andy Buist. The current squad is ridiculous in terms of talent, coaching support and off the field organisation.
“The club has amazing support from main sponsor HESCO which shares the same values in terms of being fearless, yet humble. Having a home ground at Jebel Ali Resort also means we are just 12 minutes from the Marina.”
Another reason for Hart stepping aside is to concentrate on his growing young family, with wife Holly an ever-present support. No doubt though Hart is hoping his sons Lukie and Rupert will one day scale new heights with Dragons in their own right.
For now, he’s happy to stand down, knowing the club and game of rugby in the UAE is in good hands, though he will hope to put on the jersey once again at the Dubai Sevens next December.
He added: “I have seen huge changes in the game here over the years. Most of the changes are positive in terms of world class coaches, massive improvements in playing standards and highly competitive leagues.
“I am hoping to keep my spot as Vets captain to see if we can retain the Dubai Sevens title we secured for the first time in December. This will keep me involved as a player for one month at least and the rest of season as supporter.”
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.”