Ali Thompson has quit as Abu Dhabi Saracens head coach just two months after leading the club to the pinnacle of West Asian rugby with a dramatic Gulf Top Six triumph in Doha.
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The Scotsman says he has made the decision to step down after only one season in charge “with a heavy heart” but cited spending more time with his young family as the chief reason for his resignation.
Thompson led Sarries to the most successful season in their short history, the club capping a magical campaign by being crowned kings of West Asia in March.
The Al Ghazal outfit beat Doha 26-20 in an epic ARFU West Asia Champion Club final, achieving it the hard way by defeating the Qataris on their own ground.
Sarries were only founded in 2011 and Thompson, a former UAE captain who played six seasons with capital city rivals Harlequins, moved across the city in 2013.
After a season on the pitch, Thompson assumed a player/coach role, overseeing a marked improvement in form – the West Asia Cup triumph arriving after Sarries lost only one game of 10 GT6 fixtures.
“I’ve loved every minute being at Sarries and to finish the season the way we did was the icing on the cake,” Thompson told Sport360.
“I’ve not come to this decision lightly and it’s not been done overnight. It’s all been done amicably although I leave with a heavy heart as
I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time with Sarries as both a player and a coach.”
Thompson revealed that he contacted new Sarries’ chairman and close friend Jay Danielson earlier this week, while he also personally messaged all of his first team squad, informing them of his decision.
Despite a thoroughly enjoyable season, Thompson says his role has required “massive commitment” on his part and he does not want to become an absent father, with sons Finley and Lewis aged just four and two respectively, while he praised understanding wife, Yvonne.
“Fridays are long days with me away but it’s not just games and then training on Mondays and Wednesdays, it’s a massive commitment and a little bit too much with the boys the age they are,” said Thompson, 36.
“Yvonne’s become a bit of a rugby widow so enough’s enough and I want to be there to introduce the boys to the game of rugby, like my father was there for me. I don’t want to become an absent father.”
Thompson, head of biology at the British School Al Khubairat, still intends to coach the Under-18 side at the school, adding that he might get involved in youth coaching, while he has refused to totally rule out a return to Sarries in the future.
“I’m stepping away in a formal capacity but I’ll always be available to help,” insisted Thompson. “I’m not walking away from the club completely and should my personal circumstances change in the future there’s always the possibility that perhaps I could come back.”
Thompson believes he is leaving the club in good hands, although there is no news yet on a successor for the Scot.
“There’s a few irons in the fire but no decision has been made yet,” added Thompson. “There’s been so much reward this season with Sarries and it was important to me to leave the club in good hands.
“Jay is an expectant father so he understands the massive commitments and he was part of the decision making process. They need to move forward and not stagnate, I want them to win more championships.”
The UAE Rugby Federation (UAERF) has announced that official committees to represent and continue activities for the codes of League and Touch in the UAE are well underway, with the respective committees to be formalised by the end of this week (commencing May 17).
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The Federation has confirmed that a meeting with Mike Quinn, Chairman of Dubai Sharks Rugby Club and Keleto Dyer, Al Ain Amblers Rugby Club, has taken place and a meeting with Touch Rugby’s John Larkins will be held imminently.
A meeting of the Board will follow on Wednesday, May 20 to formalise and endorse the separate committees of the two codes and to endorse the UAERF Board member, Saoud Belshalat as Chairman of the newly established UAE Rugby League Committee.
“I am very happy to be [appointed] Chairman of the UAE Rugby League Committee and I look forward to working closely with the clubs to steer League into a positive future in the UAE,” said Belshalat.
“I am also very happy to advise that the game between Dubai Sharks and Xodus Wasps has been rescheduled for Friday May 29th, with the League finals to be played the following week, Friday June 5th.”
RLiF and RLEF have been advised of both the formation of the committee, and the meetings with the club chairmen via an official correspondence dated Tuesday May 12th.
— UAE Rugby Federation (@uaerugby) May 14, 2015
In this email it was re-iterated that the newly formed committee and its board will follow due process, under the auspice of the General Authority of Youth and Sports Welfare and the UAE Rugby Federation.
The Federation will ensure all necessary licenses and permits to continue activities in the UAE are obtained, and also reiterated its commitment to work with the regional and international bodies to follow the games rules and regulations as set by the respective federations.
The news follows that of the UAERF withdrawing its case against Sol Mokdad conditional to three elements which have been agreed in the spirit of allowing the game of Rugby League to move forward under new governance.
Elmokdad had been arrested under allegations of fraud, after establishing the league against UAE regulations.
The RLIF has issued a statement about Rugby League in the UAE http://t.co/5kbCcf9Vuq
— International RL (@IntlRL) May 14, 2015
The conditions which Elmokdad has agreed to, include that he explains to regional and international Rugby League bodies that he is no longer involved with overseeing or managing the code under UAE jurisdiction.
Mokdad must also give assurances that we will not carry out rugby activities without UAERF approval and that the body is not liable or responsible for any of his previous, present and future misconduct or misbehaviour during his residency in the UAE.
“I’m delighted to report of fruitful correspondences achieved between the UAERF and the RLiF during the last week, and we are very happy that we can now provide this growing code, currently enjoyed by 4 clubs, an official, legal voice and representation in the UAE,” said Qais Al Dhalai, UAE Rugby Federation’s Secretary General.
“During the summer months, plans will be created for each of the codes to implement programmes which are current, as well as future fixtures to complete the activity calendar.”
Roelof Kotze has likened the UAE’s progress on the international stage in the last year to a massive oil tanker that has taken its time to turn around, but is now finally heading in the right direction.
With the dust having settled on their Asia Rugby Championship campaign, dejection at missing out on promotion to Division I should by now have begun to be replaced by contentment.
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Ultimately, the width of a post is all that prevented Kotze’s side from bouncing back into the second tier of Asian rugby after relegation to Division II in 2014.
Hassan Al Noobi’s penalty kick against Malaysia struck an upright instead of sailing through them on Wednesday and the hosts held on for a slender 20-19 win, a 53-7 victory over Thailand in their final game then clinching promotion.
The UAE’s 16-12 win over Chinese Taipei, meanwhile, confirmed they will remain in Division II.
Promotion had been the aim, but Kotze admits there are far more positives to come out of the tour than negatives.
“The general feeling among the boys was that it was a massive success,” said the UAE’s head coach.
The UAE Squad celebrate their win over Chinese Taipei to stay in Asia Rugby Championship Div 2 next year pic.twitter.com/As5W1eaaA4
— Matthew Oakley (@MatthewOakley5) May 16, 2015
“The tour created momentum for us and we hope we can feed off it. We will use the loss to Malaysia to get things perfect for next year.
“We have to look at it as a positive and believe the pain of missing out on promotion this year will help us next year.”
Despite the initial disappointment, the UAE are still a very fledgling rugby nation, having only been established in 2010. It wasn’t too long ago that they were getting thrashed 111-0 in the Asian Five Nations by Japan in 2011.
International veterans Chris Jones-Griffiths and Graham Murphy have spoken of their belief during this tournament that the UAE have found their level.
“Division II, do we want to be there? No. But is it the end of the world we’re there for another season? Probably not,” said the South African.
“We’ll live with it for now and make sure we don’t slip up next year. Last year we started to change course and now we can see that there’s been a change in direction, like a massive oil tanker turning around. There’s a plan and everyone’s beginning to see it.”
With a blend of expats and an emerging crop of Emiratis, Kotze is beginning to see the emergence of a squad that can lead to a sustainable future for the UAE team, a future that contains success.
“We’ve got the base of a squad now and there’s lots to build on,” said Kotze.
“I think the Emiratis made a step up. They surprised a few of the expats as well as themselves. They were there because they can play. They were not picked because we had to, they’re good enough to be there.”