Abu Dhabi Harlequins and UAE rugby was dealt a body blow on Monday when it was uncovered Ben Bolger has decided to retire from playing with immediate effect for health reasons.
The talismanic Quins and UAE national team captain took the decision due to suffering numerous and increasingly frequent concussions throughout his career – the latest of which he sustained in his side’s 15-15 draw with West Asia Premiership rivals Bahrain on September 29.
Bolger, who grew up playing rugby league and featured in nearly half a century of Super League games for London Broncos, is just 28 but has taken the decision with his health and family in mind.
A true force of nature who is loved by opponents almost as much as he is by team-mates, Bolger broke the news to Quins colleagues at training on Monday night.
Bolger, a relentless, all-action workhorse of a flanker, revealed he was ruled out by team physio Pat Milton after the Bahrain incident until 2018, and took the decision with wife Vicky to call it a day.
“I’ve had concussions throughout my career. I seem to get into big collisions all the time,” said financial planner Bolger, who revealed he’s suffered as many as maybe 20 concussions in 23 years playing the game.
“It’s part of rugby but they’ve started to come a bit too frequently and my health is more important.
“I had the conversation after the Bahrain game. We get really well looked after by our physio Pat, by all the management and coaching staff. Pat and the staff said ‘you’re not playing until after Christmas’ whatever the scan says.
“So I made the decision with my wife Vicky that it was an opportunity to call it a day.”
Bolger suffered what he called a ‘minor’ concussion during Quins’ 29-29 draw with Kandy in Sri Lanka during the pre-season Western Clubs Champions League clash. He says minor even though he can’t recall the second half after he played on.
“It only takes one more knock for it to be one too many,” he added.
“It’s different if it was a dodgy hamstring but I’ve got the rest of my life ahead of me so it was the right decision to make. I can’t say the condition is getting worse but I guess the way I play has had something to do with it.
“I try to be as physical as I can every week, which probably has a lot to do with it. The fact they’re coming a bit more quickly was definitely a factor in my decision.”
Bolger is the archetypal rugby warrior in the mould of Richie McCaw, fearless yet astute. A ferocious competitor who leads by example but sees the big picture.
Since arriving in the Emirates in 2012 he’s played in five consecutive Gulf Men’s League finals at the Dubai Sevens. He lost his first two to Jebel Ali Dragons but led Quins to a hat-trick of successes in 2016. His value to the club he’s represented with distinction for five years is immeasurable, even if the man himself admits he’s nowhere near the most talented player on the team.
“I’m not necessarily the best ball carrier or the best player or have the most amazing feet,” said Bolger when asked if, in hindsight, he would have changed his combative style.
“I just try and go out on a Friday and work harder than anyone else and be physical and get through the workload. That’s the sort of player I am.
“I’m probably not the sort of player who’s the best to watch from the sidelines but that’s the value I like to think I give my team. And that’s me as a person too. So I wouldn’t change anything.
“I’ve been involved in rugby my whole life. I’ve played 23 consecutive seasons, it’s all I’ve ever known. All my best mates are rugby players and I think that will continue, wherever I go.
“Whether I move on I’ll always be involved with a club, but not being involved week in, week out, is going to be weird. There hasn’t been a game yet so I don’t suppose it’s sunk in.
“Even if I end up coaching, not being out there and experiencing the emotions of playing in a final, that’s where it will hit me the most. If the boys are successful this season, not being there to have any effect or join in will probably really hurt.”
Bolger captained the UAE during a disappointing three-loss series at the Asia Rugby Championship’s Division I earlier this year in Malaysia. That came after he led Quins to an unprecedented season of success in 2016/17 where the club fittingly won a quintuple – West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens, as well as West Asia Cup and Champions League.
He admits the three defeats to Malaysia, Sri Lanka and his good friend Phil Abraham’s Philippines at international level has left a slightly sour taste, but he doesn’t have many regrets having made arguably the hardest decision of his life.
“I’ve achieved a lot in five years, domestically and then I got the chance to captain the UAE,” he said.
“It leaves a sour taste that we didn’t perform to our potential in Division I this year. I would have liked to have been successful in Malaysia.
“When Niall Statham got injured in 2016 I took on the captaincy for that tournament and we won it (Division II), but it would have been nice on the 2017 tour to be successful and made an impact. It’s the only sour taste.
“After such a successful season domestically with Quins, to not go and perform when it mattered in Malaysia was disappointing, but looking back, we’ve always been in finals with Quins or won something most seasons.
“Five trophies in one season and being the captain through all of that is special. I’ve played in five Dubai Sevens finals. Lost the first two, won the last three. Then to captain the UAE, I don’t feel like I’ve left any stones unturned so I’m pretty content with how things have gone.”
Rugby offers those who play it the chance to forge special bonds, something that Bolger feels grateful that he will still get to be a part of.
“I started the season as the first team captain so I think it would be wrong to abandon the season,” Bolger said, admitting he’ll still head down to Zayed Sports City on a Friday night to get his ‘fix’.
“All my really close mates are there, it’s been such a big part of my life here. Socially it’s been my escape from work so I’ll still use that on the weekend. It will be my fix for the week, banter with the boys.”
Bolger also paid tribute to the many messages he had received from friends and rival players since news leaked out.
He added: “I’ve had a lot of messages from different clubs wishing me the best of luck and talking about how they enjoyed our battles against each other so I’d like to thank them for that. It’s a really good reflection of what UAE rugby’s about and how everyone looks after each other.”
Dragons’ Scottish scrum-half and skipper Ross Samson described Bolger as someone opponents both loved and loathed playing against in equal measure.
“I’m gutted for Benny having to retire,” said Samson. “The guy’s an animal, we love and hate playing against him. Dragons boys are thinking of him and our thoughts are with him and Quins.”
It’s the end of an era for one of UAE rugby’s most iconic figures in recent years, but Quins coach Mike McFarlane believes Bolger has made the right decision.
“It’s a huge loss for the club both on and off the pitch,” said McFarlane.
“He’s an inspiring leader, a top class player and someone who breathes the club culture. We’ve been through some battles together and couldn’t have had a better season last year and I’ve learnt a lot from him.
“As a good friend it’s the right decision and like any player at the club, their health and safety is paramount. He will still be involved, imparting his wisdom on the boys, and will continue to be an important part of the Quins make-up.”
Bolger’s news comes after Dubai Exiles winger Ed James also retired early, aged just 27, earlier this year after suffering concussion in a freak accident playing against Bahrain in January. Quins winger Chris Marshall has only returned to the first-team fold this season following two years out with a dislocated shoulder. It also evokes memories of Mike Ballard. The American broke his back and was left wheelchair-bound following an injury sustained playing against Dragons in the West Asia Champion Club final in April 2014.
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Jebel Ali Dragons won a ferocious encounter with Dubai Exiles to signify that silverware in Gulf rugby this season looks likely to be a thrilling four-way battle.
Both sides battled fiercely at The Sevens but it was Henry Paul’s side who came out on top in a pulsating derby game that swayed this way and that.
The hosts could have snatched victory at the death when a brilliant sniping run by livewire scrum-half Carel Thomas saw him dive for the line and initially awarded a try – but the referee’s decision was overruled by the touch judge who spotted Thomas had knocked on after a last-ditch tackle.
Defeat halted a roaring start to the season from Exiles, although this was the first true test of their title aspirations.
For Dragons, meanwhile, it was ecstasy at the final whistle having suffered heartbreak in their opening game against Abu Dhabi Harlequins three weeks ago when a late conversion robbed them of glory in a 34-33 defeat.
The big hits were numerous from the off as two physical sides went to war, Exiles fly-half Durandt Gerber opened the scoring when he cleverly spotted an opportunity and drop kicked his side in front via a post.
Nicholas McCashin missed a chance to draw Dragons level but they went ahead soon after when hooker Epeli Davetawalu crashed over in the corner following a flowing move, Sakiusa Naisau brilliantly converting from the touchline.
Exiles had full-back Thinus Steyn sin-binned in the aftermath for a high tackle on Niko Volavola and the visitors put their foot on Exiles’ throats when centre Naisau then went over after a great Scott Hayes offload six minutes later.
Gerber kicked a penalty to keep Exiles in it and they brought the Dragons lead to just a point when Jaen Botes rumbled over from a lineout after Dragons had seen Luke Blane yellow carded for not wrapping his arms around a tackler.
Gerber’s conversion was wide as Dragons held a slender 12-11 lead at the break.
Despite playing with 14, it was Paul’s side who seized the initiaitive after the break – Nasau dashing over for his second after cutting an excellent angle off another fine Hayes pass, James Love converting from right in front.
Both sides enjoyed bouts of possession but an increasingly slippery ball continued to play havoc as the heavy hits kept coming.
Tom Gregory went over for a pushover score and Gerber’s conversion once again brought Exiles back to within one point at 19-18, before Love’s penalty extended the lead to four.
Then came the moment Dragons thought victory had been snatched away again, but the try was reversed and they held on stoutly for a fine victory.
There is a steely look as Denny Solomona explains how he won’t let hurt get the better of him.
Despite being “gutted” at missing out on the recent England training squad – and the chance to atone for an error of judgment that saw him sent home from the previous camp – he used disappointment to be a force for his club.
“Obviously it hurt not to be part of the training squad,” said the 24-year-old, whose dramatic international debut in June against Argentina saw him miss a couple of important tackles before a superb solo effort sealed a 38-34 win.
“I was gutted, but at the end of the day if I’m not playing well for Sale then I’m not going to be involved for England.
“There’s no point kicking cans and sulking. I had that day to be disappointed when the squad was announced, but it’s in the past now. The focus is on Sale and that’s what will eventually get me back in, playing well, scoring tries and helping them win games.
“Eddie Jones has said to work hard. He’s a great coach, but not only a coach, but a mentor. He’s given me pointers on how to improve, that’s what he wants. If you don’t do it, you are not going to get in the team.”
The shame of being sent home from the August camp after a late-night drinking session with Manu Tuilagi may linger for as long as he is not part of the England squad.
But he added: “I didn’t get influenced, I made my choice and it was a wrong one. It was out of character. I’ve struggled a bit with my mental state and it was a way out where I could have released it. But it was the wrong time, the wrong place. I’m a lot better than what came out and what people said.
“I made a mistake and will learn from it. The No1 priority is to do well for Sale and then hopefully get back with England.
“Everyone says we have a lot of depth and we do. We have a lot of strong characters, good players, and it’s tough to be pushed out. But I love the competition, you don’t play the sport to have a free run. You want to challenge yourself to know your character.
“It was fantastic to make my debut against Argentina. but it’s like that block of chocolate, you’ve had one piece and you want more. That’s what it’s done to me.”
Growing up in Auckland, Solomona has had to learn to stay strong to deal with whatever fate delivered.
The blow of being released by Melbourne Storm, his boyhood idols, in 2014 was a nadir.
“I was about 16 when I went there and it was tough as a youngster,” he said. “It all comes down to do what you need to do to provide for your family.
“Since I was five I was playing rugby with my brother, he’s two years older, and because my dad, also called Denny, couldn’t coach both nights, a Tuesday-Thursday or Monday-Wednesday, for both grades, he gave me the ultimatum that I jump up two ages or I get coached by a different person. So I played two age groups above until I was about 10.
“It kind of benefited me, toughened me up, but it was hard too because I had to socialise with people a lot older than me and had to grow up a lot faster as a person and on a development level. I played First XV in union on a Saturday and then league on a Sunday.
“I was focusing more on union, and had something lined up, but it fell through and then the league opportunity came. To go to the club I always loved was a no brainer.
“At the time my older sister dropped out of school and took a part-time job to try to help my family out. It was tough growing up, we were living week to week, month to month. As a young islander you grow up seeing that family struggle so all you aspire to do is provide for them. Luckily I got a chance to go to Melbourne Storm.
“I had planned on being a one-man club and in there for the long haul. It was everything I wanted. Growing up, watching Melbourne winning championships, that’s what I thought it was going to be.
“But at the time Billy Slater was in his prime and to get a game at full-back was hard. He was backing it up from State of Origin and straight back to playing in the side.
“Melbourne gave me some opportunities and I thought I took them, but it was a massive blow to me as a professional, and a kid, as well when they released me. In the end it was not the worst opportunity coming to England. Another door opened for me.”
That door was the London Bronco’s Super League outfit and Solomona’s 10 tries in 21 games saw him earn a move to Castleford a season later.
The ‘Jungle’ was where Solomona was a try-scoring beast, setting a mark of 42 in 2016, before it all ended acrimoniously last December when it was announced he had retired with two years left on his contract.
When he subsequently switched codes and joined Sale Sharks, a bitter legal battle followed, settled finally in June, and overshadowing an impressive debut season which included an England call once he was eligible after completing his three-year residency in the United Kingdom.
Solomona is desperate to work his way back into England coach Eddie Jones’ plans.
Relieved the Castleford case has been resolved, Solomona – whose side host Toulouse on Friday in a European Challenge Cup tie – added: “There was a lot of controversy around it and no one knows the full story. It was mentally tough, trying to wake up positive and realise what the goal was, and that was to provide for my family.
“You don’t dwell on it, you can’t. It either makes or breaks you and I decided to use it as a motivational thing to go forward. I thought my first year back in union with Sale was a good one so used it as a positive.
“It’s a credit to the boys at Sale too. I felt very welcome, didn’t feel like an outsider, that things had gone on and they didn’t trust me. They brought me in and made me feel at home from the first day.”
Solomona has developed into a winger with the pace, power and finishing skills to draw comparisons with Wallaby Lote Tuqiri and England and Sale icon Jason Robinson.
“It’s good to be compared to other players like that, but I want to be remembered in my own right, to make my own mark,” he said.
And, with 16 tries in 20 games since he joined Sale, he is desperate to play his way back into Jones’s plans and a place in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
“Everyone is making the steps towards that, the World Cup would be special,” he added.
“Eddie is driving it. That’s everyone’s aspirations, to play in that World Cup, to play at the highest level and to win it. “That’s what I want, there’s more to come and more to achieve.”