Ed Armitage has just ended a four-year stay in the UAE but the now ex-Dubai Exiles scrum-half admits he has unfinished business with his adopted country and isn’t ruling out a return to earn a coveted national team cap in the future.
The Yorkshireman returned home to the UK to follow a career in law earlier this month but with parents Neil and Jane living out here, Armitage revealed he is already setting his sights on a return one day to capitalise on the opportunity he agonisingly missed out on this year.
The 24-year-old had been training with Apollo Perelini’s UAE squad since the start of the 2017 and would have been part of the touring party taking part in May’s Asia Rugby Championship in Malaysia.
Unfortunately the tour clashed with Armitage’s final-year law exams at the Dubai-based Middlesex University – leaving him with a burning desire to return in the future.
“(Playing for the UAE), it would have been the perfect way to finish it (my time out here),” admitted Armitage, whose cunning and quickness will surely be sorely missed by Exiles next season.
“Unfortunately with my timetable, it didn’t happen. The gutting thing is I’d been involved in the training and heavily involved talking to Apollo and speaking to the other players. I was hoping the timetables wouldn’t clash but when they got released I was absolutely devastated.
“Never say never though. If I have the opportunity to come back, there’s been vague talk of coming back out. It’s a shame but I might get another chance. Watch this space, I might still get my chance.”
The UAE had been hoping to build on the good work of 2016 when they recorded huge wins against Thailand and Uzbekistan to storm to the ARC Division II title.
Those victories built a historic three-game winning streak – the biggest in UAE history – but despite adding a raft of talent to this year’s roster; including Abu Dhabi Harlequins fly-half Luke Stevenson, as well as Armitage’s former skipper at club level, Glenn Moore, the UAE lost all three games.
Armitage’s final exam was May 16, a day before Perelini’s men faced Sri Lanka, but he would likely have only been able to make it out to Ipoh for the UAE’s final game against the Philippines – billed as a relegation decider but eventually turned out to be a dead rubber – on May 20.
Armitage added: “I was hoping they would finish prior to tour starting. Last exam was May 16, bang in the middle of tour. Even if there was a chance to fly out it would have been a dead rubber anyway, so unfortunately it didn’t come off.”
Luckless Armitage also missed out on representing the UAE in sevens at the Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy in March after injuring his knee playing for Exiles against Abu Dhabi Saracens in their final UAE Premiership game of 2016/17 in March.
“I was due to go to that but got injured in the last game of the season so it seems the UAE was not meant to be for me this year,” added the former Leeds Carnegie academy player.
Not many of the current Exiles squad have first-hand experience of what it was like during the dark days before the double-winning West Asia Championship and UAE Premiership 2015/16 campaign.
But Armitage recalls being one of only seven players who turned up to training when he arrived in the UAE on a permanent basis four years ago.
“I was at the first session when there were seven of us there. It was dire,” admitted Ilkley native Armitage, who admitted he almost ended up joining Jebel Ali Dragons when he arrived to live here permanently having originally briefly spent time here after finishing secondary school and training with Exiles.
His parents have lived in Duabi for almost eight years, dad Neil works for Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, and the former Sedbergh schoolboy was eventually persuaded to stay with Exiles by former coach Jan Venter.
“I’ve been coming to the UAE since since I was 17. The parents moved here when I was at school and I’d come and visit before moving out here after school.
“That’s when I joined Exiles. I googled rugby out here and Exiles came up. I turned up at a training session and was playing v the (Dubai) Hurricanes the following weekend.”
After Sedbergh, Armitage’s talent was recognised by Leeds, where he played until he was 20, which also showed Exiles he had pedigree.
He added: “This was when Exiles were completely player led. Mike Coxhill was player-coach. When I left to go and work back in the UK was when it all fell apart and Jan Venter picked it up.
“To be honest when I first came back I’d spoken to a few boys at Dragons and was quite close to signing with them at one point. I stuck it out, Jan said ‘we need you’.
“We had two years playing in the Gulf Conference having not made the Gulf Top 6. We’d always win that and it was nice to win some silverware, but it’s not the best.
“Jacques’ (Benade, Exiles head coach) arrival changed everything. He bought in some really good personnel and was the number one man.”
After starring as Exiles, the UAE’s oldest rugby club, returned to prominence in 2015/16, it was hard for Armitage to see the club struggle badly last season in what was their 50th season in existence.
Exiles finished fourth out of five teams in the UAE Premiership and fifth from seven in the West Asia Premiership as they won just nine of 20 games in 2016/17.
“It was a shame we couldn’t keep it going this year,” Armitage said.
“It hasn’t ended my time on a flat note but it’s disappointing because we showed so much potential the previous year with the double.
“Jacques is looking heavily at recruitment. We lost a key number of boys last year, Rhinus (Bothma), Bradley (van Niekirk) and Phillip (Snyman).”
And Armitage hopes the same drop won’t be experienced next year with the possibility of Moore not carrying on, while long-serving prop Krisitian Stinson and his wife are expecting their first child, so he might step away.
“It will be interesting again to see what will happen this year. It’s the nature of the beast with rugby here. From initially turning up, there’s three players still here. Waves and waves of people come and go.
“It’s inevitable you’ll lose bodies, but numbers at training we missed this year. It turned out on the pitch. Squad numbers this year are supposed to be upward of 40 so we’ll see.”
Armitage will spend the summer in Leeds before heading to London to continue his law degree in September, with one eye definitely on a return to his adopted home.
“The plan is definitely to come back with the opportunities that are here,” he said. “UK and Yorkshire are home but I would love to come back here and work.”
Abu Dhabi Saracens have suffered a body blow after several big players announced their departures this week.
Powerhouse props Craig Nutt and Murray Reason – who earned his UAE debut during May’s Asia Rugby Championship Division II campaign in Malaysia – have left, as have pivotal centres Sean Stevens and Garth van Niekirk.
What will be even more of a bitter pill to swallow for the Al Ghazal outfit is that all four are expected to sign with capital city rivals Harlequins for the 2017/18 season.
“Nutty, Muzza, Sean and Garth, plus some lads, are going to head to Quins,” revealed Sarries chairman Jay Danielson.
“They gave some weak reasons around UAE selection opportunities and that they didn’t think Sarries would be competitive (next season). They are taking the easy option rather than some hard graft to build something great, which is the kind of attitude I can do without.”
It follows on from a hugely disappointing campaign for Sarries, who finished bottom of both the UAE Premiership and West Asia Premiership tables with just three wins from 20 games in both competitions.
Their final placings don’t tell the tale of how competitive they were – with seven games lost by seven points or less – but it was a drastic fall from grace following lifting the West Asia crown two years ago.
With rugby in the Emirates creeping ever closer towards professionalism, Sarries were left ruthlessly exposed last season by the progress made by many opponents.
But Danielson admitted he and the club are busy recruiting for next season, with second row Alex Gonzalez returning to the club following a season out injured, as well as former Arabian Gulf international Loky Al Ganas.
“We have been doing some recruiting lately and have ex-Gulf representative Loky joining us, plus Alex coming back,” added the Australian.
“We have quite a few international prospects too but I can’t confirm those yet.
“Alex played with us in our West Asia Championship-winning year, he’s a long time Saracens stalwart. He’s been out with injury until now. We’re glad to have the long-haired maniac back. He’s a great lad.
“Loky played for the Arabian Gulf Under-19s and then went to South Africa to study. He’s now back in town and keen.”
Stuart Hogg faces a nervous 48-hour wait to discover whether his cheek injury could end his British and Irish Lions tour.
The Scotland full-back suffered a hugely unlucky facial injury in Saturday’s impressive 12-3 win over the Crusaders, running face-first into Conor Murray’s elbow.
The Glasgow star collided with Murray as the Ireland scrum-half attempted to move out of Hogg’s way – and head coach Warren Gatland admitted the full-back will now be sent to a specialist to determine the extent of the damage to his cheek.
Sam Warburton has shaken off his ankle problem to captain the Lions in Tuesday’s Highlanders clash in Dunedin, while Jared Payne is fit to start at full-back as boss Gatland assesses his options at 15 given Hogg’s injury doubt.
“With Stuart Hogg, we’re getting a specialist to have a look at that cheek of his, to get some idea in the next 24 to 48 hours in terms of how serious an injury that is,” said Gatland.
“We’re hoping he’ll be okay but we’re just getting someone more qualified than me to assess that.”
Centre Jonathan Davies must complete return-to-play protocols after a head knock, but is already free of any concussion symptoms, while Ross Moriarty is still carrying the after-effects of a back spasm.
Dan Biggar is fit to return and start at fly-half having completed all the relevant concussions testing, and Murray suffered a suspected dislocated finger against the Crusaders but Lions bosses are unconcerned by the minor issue.
“Dan’s fine, he ran out with the team the other day,” said Gatland of fly-half Biggar.
“He’s looking forward to the opportunity to get back on the park again.
“Ross Moriarty had a bit of a back strain that he got in that first game.
“He hasn’t taken a huge part in training, the physios have been working with him. Hopefully he’s back training fully in three days’ time.
“He definitely would have been an option, that’s why CJ Stander is backing up again.
“Sam Warburton hadn’t had a lot of rugby under his belt so it was important to get him involved for this game. He could potentially back that up against the Maori All Blacks (on Saturday).”
Wales flanker Warburton suffered his low-grade ankle knock in the tour-opening 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians.
The Lions skipper believes boss Gatland boasts a “nice luxury” of eight back-rowers all worthy of Test-match selection.
“I probably only missed one or two sessions, so my preparation hasn’t changed a whole lot,” said Warburton.
“I was hoping to get involved in this game. I’ve always said I think I need a couple of games to get up and running, so I’ll be better on Tuesday.
“I thought going into this tour, looking at the eight boys picked in the back-row, you could pick any three for the Test team.
“It’s a nice luxury for the coaches and great competition for us as players. But a lot of players will put huge emphasis on that first Test.
“But as I know from four years ago a lot can happen between the Tests. We’ve got to remember the first Test is not the be-all and end-all.
“Guys will feel a little rushed to show their cards and all their best form, but guys must remember there are still two more Tests and a midweek game to prove yourself after that.
“If I had to name my top-five opensides in the world, Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien would be in there.”