Preparations are well underway for next month’s trip to Asia but first Apollo Perelini’s side contest two tough friendly outings against a UAE Conference Select XV at The Sevens on Friday, before facing a UAE Premiership Select XV next week in Sharjah.
The UAE have been training twice a week in the build up to these matches, with Bolger set to lead the team as captain in Malaysia.
Sport360 caught up with the squad as they fine tuned their skills in Dubai.
Apollo Perelini believes his UAE side that will begin the fight for a place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup next month at the Asia Rugby Championship is twice as good as the team that stormed to Division I promotion a year ago.
Perelini’s UAE smashed hosts Uzbekistan 63-13 in the ARC Division II semi-final last May before dismantling Thailand 70-18 in the final in Tashkent to earn promotion back to Asia Rugby’s second tier.
Now in Division I, they will compete with Sri Lanka, the Philippines and hosts Malaysia next month.
The winners of this year’s Division I tournament will then advance to the Top 3 Challenge play-off which will see them face the loser of the ARC Top 3 – either Japan, Hong Kong or South Korea – later this year for a chance to not only enter the Top 3 next season but also the final round of Asia qualification for the World Cup in two years’ time.
And, buoyed by their success a year ago and with an injection of talent newly qualified to represent the UAE this season, Perelini is confident heading into the Division I tournament in Ipoh, where the UAE start against the hosts on May 14.
“Confidence is high after last year. The squad is probably twice as strong as last year,” said UAE Rugby performance manager Perelini, who has been training every Saturday with his squad for much of 2017.
“We have a very, very strong backline and forwards. We were strong in the forwards last year and maybe lacked a bit of depth in the backs, but now we have some very good Premiership backs and we’ve got the best of all the clubs. We have the luxury of picking from all the best clubs.”
Perelini was able to call up Abu Dhabi Harlequins heartbeat Ben Bolger a year ago, and the talismanic flanker who slotted straight into a vice captain role is likely to be in good company if selected for the final 27-man squad in the coming weeks.
Luke Stevenson, Quins’ game-managing fly-half, has reached eligibility this season, and has been training with the UAE at The Sevens.
Dubai Exiles skipper and Number 8 Glenn Moore, Jebel Ali Dragons scrum-half Kris Greene and Dubai Hurricanes fly-half Andrew Powell are just a few of the names who have also recently qualified and could be on the plane to Malaysia.
All this is hugely promising for Perelini as the UAE go in search of their dream of qualifying for Japan 2019 – however unlikely.
Perelini has already shorn his squad to 32, with five more names to be culled before heading east.
The New Zealand former dual code Samoa international gave his players a weekend off on Saturday following the UAE Rugby Finals Day, but things will intensify with two training sessions per week from this Saturday.
The UAE will also play two warm-up games before jetting off to Malaysia, against a UAE Conference XV at The Sevens on Saturday, April 21, and a UAE Premiership XV at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club following the Sharjah 10s on April 28.
“I just really want the boys to play together. We’ve trained well over the last couple of months but you can train as much as you like, you can’t see what’s wrong, what your strengths are, what you need to improve on,” Perelini added.
“Mike (McFarlane, Quins head coach) will get together with some of the other coaches to collaborate on a Premiership side, so that will be a strong test. I want that to be a real good game to test my players and our structures.
“The Premiership game will be played in Sharjah. I think it’s good to get it out of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and visit some of the other Emirates.”
The UAE is a supremely transient place, but Neil ver Weij has lived in the Emirates and been part of Jebel Ali Dragons for 25 years – so victory for his side in the Community League final yesterday was pretty special for him.
When you add in the fact that the 55-year-old played on the losing side in last year’s final, Dragons’ 22-11 win was a fitting way for him to end his first season as Dragons team manager.
“I was still playing last season, I played in the final,” said the 55-year-old.
“From playing to coaching has been a massive difference. My mind still wants to be there but my body can’t. I’m still there living every minute with the boys.
“They’ve been very good this season after an awkward start. We didn’t have a complete team then but we’ve turned it round and become a great squad, with a tremendous spirit. Some boys are leaving so to leave with a trophy is the best gift we could give them.”
Dragons kicked off the inaugural UAE Rugby Finals Day at Dubai Sports City Friday with a victory that ruined Quins’ chances of claiming three of the four trophies on offer.
They were always in control of the game, with Chris Pike scoring a brace and Scott Kerr and Ryan Baird also crossing to seal a superb season.
Having lost in the first Community League final a year ago to Beaver Nomads, Ver Weij admitted Jebel Ali came into the final with a lot of pressure on them.
“There was a lot of pressure on us and we’re up against a very good team too in Quins,” he said.
“We knew today was going to be extremely tough so we had to make sure we played our game, which we did.”