The road to recovery for athletes is often long and arduous, although Winston Cowie is living proof of exactly why they put themselves through such pain and sacrifice.
Six years after dislocating his knee in the West Asia rugby union play-off final against Dubai Hurricanes, the 34-year-old Abu Dhabi Saracens player coach has been named in UAE coach Apollo Perelini’s squad to play in the Asia Rugby Championship later this month.
Perelini has picked a 28-man squad for a three-match tour to Malaysia, with Jebel Ali Dragons dominating the selection with eight players picked. There are six from Dubai Hurricanes, five each from Abu Dhabi rivals Harlequins and Saracens, two from Dubai Exiles and two UAE Shaheen players.
New Zealander Cowie had two operations following his injury in one of Gulf rugby’s showpiece games, his pain perhaps felt even more keenly when his Doha side went down to a last-minute Steve Smith try that saw Canes win 20-15.
He couldn’t even run properly for another two years – yet here he is, set to fly out to Ipoh for Division I games against the hosts, Sri Lanka and the Philippines as the UAE fight to get back to Asia rugby’s top table.
“It’s been a long road back to playing since dislocating my knee,” admitted Cowie, who took the reins at Al Ghazal last summer.
“Two operations, two years of not being able to run properly, but through a lot of hard work, a very understanding wife – Lucy Jones – and being involved with a great bunch at Saracens this year I have managed to get there.
“I’m incredibly grateful to AP (Perelini) for the opportunity and look forward to a massive campaign in Malaysia. It’s a really tight-knit bunch of guys and we look forward to working hard and doing the UAE rugby community proud.”
Cowie had no intentions of playing this year having taken on the Sarries’ coaching role. But when injuries and visa issues traveling to Doha left Sarries with a bare 15, including physio Tim Fletcher, Cowie stepped up, and in fact ended up playing 12 games.
“I was just going to change but then that changed in funny circumstances. I’m really pleased I did and I’m grateful for selection,” he added.
“Come the start of the year, I thought I would head along to the UAE training, go hard and have a crack. The training has been awesome and highly competitive, it’s been awesome to be a part of it.
“It’s been great to meet a top bunch of gents from the other clubs. So now we’re just really looking forward to getting on the plane and getting stuck in.”
Cowie, manager of marine policy for the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), was out in the middle of the ocean when he got the call he would be going to Malaysia on Tuesday.
“I was out doing our coral monitoring in the western region of Abu Dhabi, flat calm, pods of dolphins, breaching turtles, and then this news at the end of it,” said Cowie.
“I was in and out of reception a few times so after each dive I’d be trying to check my phone, and then I got the news just as we came into port in Mirfa. There were a few high fives.”
Despite a difficult season on the field for the club, Cowie is joined by four more Sarries players on tour, including No8 Jaen Botes, props Murray Reason and Ross Byres and scrum-half Rickus Swart.
He added: “I’m so rapt for the five Sarries that made it. Jaen, Murray and Rikus are well established for the UAE, and I’m rapt for them but particularly for our loose-head prop Ross who has been excellent all season and deserves his call up. It’s going to be great.”
Ben Bolger (capt), Chris Jones-Griffiths, Ed Talbot, Ed Lewsey, Luke Stevenson (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Josh Ives, Dave Knight, Dan Perry (vice capt), Andrew Powell, Toby Oakeley, Lindsay Fitzgerald (Dubai Hurricanes); Dan Minks, Paul Hart, Ben Blamire, Dan Bell, Chris Masson, Kris Greene, Ryno Fourie, Scott Hayes (Jebel Ali Dragons); Jaen Botes, Murray Reason, Ross Byres, Rikus Swart, Winston Cowie (Abu Dhabi Saracens); Glenn Moore, Sean Carey (Dubai Exiles); Majid Al Balooshi, Ahmed Al Shehi (UAE Shaheen)