The Conquistadors will be looking to claim a little piece of the desert as their own this weekend as they set their sights on the Gulf Men’s Social competition.
The team has been scrambled together at the last minute after initially being told there was no room for them, and will be raising money for the Mike Ballard Foundation.
Ballard, a former Abu Dhabi Harlequins player, suffered a severe spinal cord injury whilst playing for Quins against Jebel Ali Dragons in the West Asia Club Championship final in 2014.
The American teacher has since made excellent progress in his rehabilitation and returned to the UAE, taking up a place at his old school, the New England Centre for Children with Autism.
“It’s a massive call from Mike to return to Abu Dhabi and get on with life but it’s testament to his character,” said Mike Ballard Foundation co-founder Ed Lewsey.
“We are here to support Mike and initiatives like the Conquistadors really help Mike with some hefty ongoing medical costs.”
“Getting together the team was ridiculous,” said Winston Cowie, the team’s player-coach.
“In the space of a week, we had guys queuing up to play and support Mike.
“We have managed to get together some of the best players to ever play rugby in the Gulf. Most of the major teams are represented – it’s a Gulf rugby community story.”
Abu Dhabi Harlequins will be the team everyone is targeting in the Gulf Men’s League at the Dubai Sevens, although toppling the reigning champions will be a taller task than their opponents realise.
Aside from the fact that Mike McFarlane’s men are in fantastic form following a near flawless start to the UAE Premiership campaign, their electrifying corps of backs is tailor made for sevens rugby.
There’s also the small matter of McFarlane having picked the brains of Fiji head coach Ben Ryan in the lead-up to the tournament.
The defending World Rugby Sevens Series champions visited the reigning Gulf Men’s League title holders this week and McFarlane admits it was beneficial.
“It’s a brilliant learning curve learning from Ben. Listening to his philosophy and what’s behind it,” said McFarlane.
“It was a great opportunity for the players and for me too.” McFarlane admits there’s a “real buzz” surrounding the Quins camp and all players are focused on retaining the trophy they won at a canter a year ago.
“We want to enjoy it. We want to get out on that pitch and the boys are buzzing for a big event. We take it super seriously and we’re out there to continue and extend what we’ve done in previous years,” said McFarlane.
“Sevens fits perfectly into our system of running rugby, looking to keep the ball alive. We’ve had a hard 15s season so now it’s about enjoying the rugby.”
McFarlane is also bolstered by the return of several stars, with Max Trimble, Alastair Johnson and Brian Geraghty back from injury.
Dubai Hurricanes head coach James Ham is hoping his side can show their true colours in sevens after a lukewarm start to the 15s season.
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“Hurricanes will have a big turnout for the sevens, I think we have more teams in it than any other club and we are certainly looking for top spots from our ladies and vets teams,” he said.
“There looks to be some very good teams in the Gulf competition this year and although Canes have been unable to show our hand pretournament, I think this will suit us. I’m sure we will be proving ourselves as potential winners.”
Another team that has endured a tough start to the season but could be one to watch are Al Ain Amblers, who won the first round of the Eden Park 7s before losing in the final of the Cup to Jebel Ali Dragons last weekend.
Coach Tim Camaivuna said the men from the Garden City are dreaming big.
“We’re taking it one game at a time but our objective is to be in the final,” he said.
“Eden Park was encouraging and will give us confidence. We are hoping to work on our mistakes from those two tournaments and put it right this weekend and we also have players returning from injury too.”
Apollo Perelini is hoping to build on the huge success the UAE earned during the Asia Rugby Sevens Series as they target a good showing on home soil.
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After several years of struggle on the sevens circuit, a mixed squad of Emiratis and expats cemented a place among the best eight teams in Asia in October.
New UAE performance manager and interim sevens head coach Perelini is now eyeing January’s Chennai 7s and has followed predecessor Roelof Kotze’s lead by naming a mixed squad which will compete in the International Open Men’s competition this weekend.
Ranked just below the main men’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, Perelini admits he wants to get his men “battle-hardened”.
“It’s a big challenge for our boys, it’s the first time the UAE will have entered the tournament as an international side and we want to get our minds focused for the Chennai 7s,” said New Zealand-born former dual code Samoa international. “It’s good for our development and important to build on the success they had in the Asia Sevens Series.”
Perelini has selected Niall Statham, who captained the UAE to success in the Asia Sevens Series, while Jaen Botes, Hassan Al Noobi and Adel Al Hendi have all featured heavily for the UAE in both formats of the game in the last 12 months.
It could have been even more formidable but Perelini is content for some players to play for their club sides in the Gulf competitions
“There’s lots of players not available for selection who I’ll be keeping a close eye on,” he said. “It’s important to maintain good relationships with the clubs and I’ve picked a side to be competitive and one that will do the best we can.”