Sean Hurley is so synonymous with Jebel Ali Dragons and the Dubai Rugby Sevens, that a year after hanging up his boots he wanted to be as far away from all the fanfare and excitement as possible – although nearly 9,000km seems pretty drastic.
While his clubmates go for glory at one of the most popular sporting events on the UAE calendar this weekend, Hurley will be trekking through the Ica desert in Peru, competing in the grueling Marathon des Sables (MdS) – the first time in the event’s illustrious 32-year history it is being held outside of the Sahara Desert.
Hurley has enjoyed a fairly distinguished playing career himself – having represented the Arabian Gulf RFU in 15s and 7s between 2003-09 and the UAE from 2010-13.
The MdS is renowned for the physical and mental strain it places on participants. It is a 250km ultramarathon that is run over six stages and eight days. It sounds like a tough task for anyone, never mind someone who “despises” running.
“My whole life I’ve never been a fan of running and actually hated it,” admitted Hurley, 39, who unlike many better prepared participants, only signed on to compete three months ago.
“I would get it done at training, pre-season, 7s sprint trainings etc, but running over 3km was the limit.
“I had actually never really run over 5km in my life before I signed up to this race, which has made the training interesting and how amazing the human body adapts. I’ve grown to enjoy it over the last 12 weeks.”
The Philippines-born Australian, who has called the UAE home for nearly 18 years, played in the Dragons Social team that lost the Plate final to Sand Sharks at last year’s Sevens.
Having called it a day after 17 straight years featuring at the tournament and turning 40 during his Peruvian pilgrimage, Hurley, who refuses to play vets rugby, was keen to find something to keep him occupied on Sevens weekend.
“I retired from rugby because I can’t commit to the trainings anymore, with all the travel I do with work,” said Hurley, who is the Africa, Middle East and South Asia director for Spanish fashion brand, Mango.
“Although I still feel fit and healthy enough to play, I don’t want to give half an effort. I’m not really into playing vets rugby either.
“Part of the decision for doing this is for charity, but I think the final factor that helped seal the decision was I turn 40 on the final stage of this race.
“Since I hung up the rugby boots last year at the 7s, I’ve been searching for a new goal or at least a fitness target I could work towards.
“When you retire from playing a team sport after 35 years, it leaves quite a big hole and despite the fact I’m still involved in the club and all the boys are good mates, it’s not quite the same.
“I wanted to do something so far out of my comfort zone, this seemed like a good idea.”
Prior to the AGRFU disbanding in 2009 and the UAE forming its own, independent union, Hurley represented the Arabian Gulf at the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens, held in the UAE.
The team lost all three games in Pool A, including a 41-5 defeat to juggernauts New Zealand, although they were narrowly beaten 19-17 by Italy in their final match, before going down to Ireland 24-5 in the first knockout round of the Bowl competition.
There he played alongside fellow Dragons Jonny MacDonald, now an assistant coach at the club, James Love, who returned to Jebel Ali this season after stints with London Scottish and playing in Hong Kong, and Tom Otton, who is also tackling the MdS with him.
He was also part of the Dragons side that won three Gulf Men’s League titles at Dubai from 2011-13 and admits the tournament will always hold a special place in his heart.
“There’s so many moments that stand out,” added Hurley, who lives in the old town/Manzil district of Dubai.
“I played for the Arabian Gulf for seven years at the 7s, we toured to other 7s tournaments, but probably my favourite was the Rugby World Cup 7s in 2009.
“Since then, definitely winning the three back to back victories with the Dragons, that was utterly fantastic and was just as important to me as the representative stuff.”
During training, Hurley and Otton discovered fellow Dubai resident Nick Peters was also entering, so the three joined forces. Otton and Peters have some similar experience – Create Media Group managing director Otton ran the MdS in its traditional home of Morocco’s Sahara in 2015 and summited Mera Peak in the Himalayas last year.
He’s very much the rookie of the group and knows he’s in for an energy-sapping struggle. But he insists there’s nothing he fears ahead of the race, which started earlier today.
“I’ve been looking forward to the whole experience, not just the race,” said Hurley, who landed in Lima with the guys last Wednesday.
“I honestly don’t think there’s anything I’m dreading, but I know stuff will go wrong, we just have to deal with it and support each other.
“I can only go by what I’ve heard from the guys who’ve done this before and Tom is one of them, but managing your feet is the toughest part I think.
“I’ve heard 95 per cent of people come out of it with their feet genuinely destroyed, blistered, bloody etc. And maybe not washing for nine days coukd be the other hard part.”
He’s tried his hand at kayaking, outriggers, triathlons and rugby in the past, all of which feature elements of distance, but Hurley knows they don’t compare to this.
“I’ll have to let you know after we (hopefully) finish the race, but I can see this sort of challenge becoming very addictive. If the training is anything to go by, the highs and satisfaction I’ve felt after some of the long training days (30-35km) have been amazing.”
The trio are raising money for the Larchfield Orphanage in Tanzania and are targeting Dh30,000.
Hurley added: “It’s the other part to this challenge I’m looking forward to. We’ve started only a few days ago because UAE approval took 10weeks. The other charity is one close to my family’s heart in Australia, with funds being raised there for it.”
You can help the guys reach their target by visiting their JustGiving page at www.justgiving.com/teams/PeruUltra2017.
One of the UAE’s favourite sporting events, the Dubai Rugby Sevens, is fast approaching and will take place at the Sevens Stadium from November 30-December 2.
Whether it’s your first time attending the event or if you’re a seasoned pro, here is a look at our top tips to help get the most out of your weekend.
If you’re based around Dubai or further afield, it’s important to arrive early and avoid the entry queue, which normally starts to build around midday.
Don’t be one of the people who tries to arrive fashionably late because you’ll miss all the fun.
On Sevens weekend, arrive early and make the most of the day!
If you have loose hips like Shakira or are simply in the mood for a consistently good atmosphere, the dnata stand is where it all happens.
You might have some vocal rugby enthusiasts barking from the throngs of the upper stand, but it’s all in good spirits.
If you’re looking for a break away from the dnata stand, the social leagues on pitches two and three offer a combination of solid rugby and plenty of laughs.
The Dubai Sevens is all about what you wear, so if you want to stand out from the crowd then it’s advised to dress up.
Some of the prominent costumes from 2016 include elves, minions, Where’s Wally, Superman, The Incredibles and even a man dressed up as a vending machine.
Do your research early and give yourself enough time to buy or make a unique outfit.
We all love to comfort eat at times, but with many food trucks available at the ground (Bidi Bondi, Left Bank, Giraffe), why not go for a healthy option.
It’ll have you feeling mentally sharp instead of the peaks and troughs that come with feasting on greasy burgers and chips.
Don’t try and be a hero. Small beverages make the day enjoyable instead of drinking everything you can get your hands on.
Drink plenty of bottled water as the sweltering midday heat is a recipe for dehydration. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!
It’s always tricky when you have thousands of people battling for taxis at the end of the night, however, last year the queues moved fast and there are even free buses available that bring people back to various locations.
Another option to avoid queuing is to use the Uber or Careem apps and ask the driver to collect you at the gates of the Sevens Stadium.
Barasti and Irish Village are the most popular venues for those making evening plans.
With the weather cooling down, Barasti is the best choice and offers good music and plenty of space. If you have visitors over for the weekend, it’s a safe bet for a consistent night.
There are numerous ways teams will be preparing for this weekend’s Dubai Rugby Sevens – but not many can claim to have tested their mettle against the current Olympic champions.
But that’s exactly what Jebel Ali Dragons have been doing as they prepare to knock three-time defending Gulf Men’s League champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins off their perch.
It’s a perch Dragons scaled not too long ago, winning five tournaments in a six-year span from 2009-13, before Quins’ era of success began and coincided with Dragons’ demise.
It’s a special tournament for Dragons and everyone connected with the club, one they’d love to win even more in their 25th anniversary year.
They may have felt they had bitten off more than they can chew, as they warmed up for the Sevens with a ‘friendly’ run-out against the Rio 2016 gold medalists in Dubai on Sunday that could be described as anything but friendly.
“It’s was meant to be a game of scrag (level up from touch) and quickly turned into some big shots from the Fijian lads after we scored our first try,” said Dragons’ New Zealand pocket rocket flanker Matt Henry.
“We agreed it would be a conditioned game of ‘grab’ but it quickly escalated into some big hits and carries from both sides. I was the unlucky recipient of one hit and got absolutely smashed,” revealed Dragons Scottish skipper and scrum-half Ross Samson.
The Flying Fijians beat Dragons nine tries to two during a game played over three quarters, the highlight being a mazy run from Dragons’ Fijian centre Saki Nasau that almost resulted in a memorable score.
Meanwhile, Dubai Eagles, who lent the Fijians their Dubai Sports City training facility, were also granted a quarter and were downed three tries to nil.
The Dubai duo had stepped in to help the Pacific Islanders after their initial plans organised by an international management company had fallen through – something similar had seen Fiji assisted by Quins in recent years.
Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn had arranged accommodation for the Fijians, put up at JLT’s Bonnington Tower in JLT at short notice, as well as use of Base 3 gym facilities, while Eagles provided their pitch.
It will no doubt have been a welcome gesture for Fiji and coach Gareth Baber, who took over from gold medal-winning coach Ben Ryan at the start of the year, and forged yet stronger ties between the nation and UAE rugby.
Dragons, meanwhile, feel their Sevens preparations were supremely enhanced, even if they had to take a few bumps and bruises in the process.
“It was an amazing experience,” added Henry.
“We got a huge amount out of it all. They’ve exposed our weaknesses like most teams we will come up against could never do, so that’s invaluable heading into this Sevens week.
“All the boys were pumped to get out there and play, and I think we loved seeing Saki (Nasau) turn their winger inside out.
“This next week is huge for us as a club and we have a full sevens squad of about 30 putting in a lot of extras. I think you’ll see a Dragons contingent like no other on and off the field next weekend.”
Having lost in the final to Quins a year ago, former Scotland sevens player Samson says Dragons have a burning desire to win this year.
“It’s no secret that Dubai Sevens is our favourite time of year as a club and we will be doing absolutely everything we can to win every tournament we are in with our ones, twos, super threes and vets,” said Samson.
“We were delighted to be able to help them and Stu pulled out all the stops to make sure they got sorted.
“It was good to get a taste of the physicality and fitness required at that level and any mistakes by us were quickly punished.
“We held our own in defence and scored two tries against them as well as a few clean line breaks so it was nice to see these guys were human and made mistakes too.”
Gulf Men’s League history:
2008 Dubai Dragons 41 Dubai Exiles 12
2009 Dubai Dragons 47 Dubai Hurricanes 12
2010 Barrelhouse Yobs 22 Dubai Exiles 15
2011 Jebel Ali Dragons 29 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 7
2012 Jebel Ali Dragons 14 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 5
2013 Jebel Ali Dragons 19 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 7
2014 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 27 Doha 5
2015 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 36 Al Ain Amblers 14
2016 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 26 Jebel Ali Dragons 14