Powerhouse names like CNCF Legends, J9 Legends and Xodus Steelers have applied a stranglehold on the International Vets section at the Dubai Sevens over the last decade, but the SBA Pirates are hoping to commandeer the trophy this year.
In a bid to level the playing field, Emmanuel Barry has called on the help of a few powerhouse names from the rugby world – including 72-times capped France legend Serge Betsen.
The Pirates – named after the Serge Betsen Academy – will hope to make more of an impression after exiting at the Plate semi-final stage on debut last year.
But with Les Bleus legend Betsen and several other former internationals on board – including fly-half Yann Delaigue (20 caps) and Number 8 Francis Ntamack (younger brother of 46-times capped Emile) – Barry and the Pirates are hoping to hit the high seas of success this weekend.
“This is rugby. The aim is always to win,” said Barry, 42, a former Abu Dhabi Harlequins player who also spent time in the Middle East with Doha and Bahrain.
“This is the second year we have registered this team. Many of us played at the Sevens before but we used to play for other teams. Last year we finished second in our group and ended up losing in the semi-final of the Plate.”
Despite his optimism, Barry is aware of just how difficult the treasure of a trophy will be to get their hands on.
In the previous decade, CNCF Legends have won five of the last nine Trophy finals, including four in a row from 2008-11. Xodus Steelers won the next two before CNCF won again in 2014, with legendary South Africa scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen’s J9 Legends winning back to back crowns the last two years.
“It will be very tough. I suppose there will be the usual suspects to watch out for such as J9 Legends, 100 World Legends Project, Joining Jack Vets, Bali Legends and of course the CNCF Legends,” said Barry.
“But we have seen a lot of high quality teams last year such as the Mo Bro Vets, Stefan’s BHF, Gulf Legends or Crusaders who could surprise everyone, and of course there are teams that we know nothing about.”
Betsen set up the Serge Betsen Academy in 2004. The charity aims to help underprivileged children in his native Cameroon.
After he was unable to play last year, Barry joked Betsenwas adamant he was playing last year so that the Pirates lived up to the swashbuckling style he adopted during his playing days.
“We registered the team last year and straight away asked Serge for the authorisation to link up with the Serge Betsen Academy,” added prop Barry.
“He said yes straight away but unfortunately could not be with us last year. He watched us from a distance, probably didn’t like much the fact that we lost two games, so ended up coming this year.
“The others didn’t come to play with Serge but because they fancied a run and seeing what the Dubai Sevens is all about. Serge being able to play with us has been the cherry on the pie.”
Barry and the bulk of the team play together at a vets rugby club from the small French town of Pontarlier, near the border with Switzerland.
The Pirates are fresh from their local season, which only ended two weeks ago. Although Barry admits coming from the snow to the sun will be a bit of a shock to the system.
“We have had to stop training due to the amount of snow on the frozen pitches, so the weather of Dubai is something we all look forward to,” he added.
“We will also come in fancy dress. I can’t reveal what we will be dressed as but can give you a clue, it’s in the name of our team.”
With the academy set up to help children in Cameroon, Barry revealed donations will be made to the SBA.
“Having played the other teams we realised that, through sponsorship, it would be a great way to raise money for a charity that was close to our hearts,” he said.
“There are so many to be honest, we know that many of the other teams play for great causes too and we really admire them for it.
“The SBA is unique in the sense that it is bringing education, healthcare and generally speaking a future to children in need, and all that through the powerful vector of teaching them the values of rugby.”
Dubai Hurricanes player Gwillym Poole will be attending the Dubai Sevens this weekend, but in a slightly more unusual role than you might imagine– he’ll be manager and assistant coach of the Kukri Cobras, essentially the USA’s second string.
Poole, commercial manager at rugby equipment providers Kukri Middle East and Africa, helped establish the Yalla Kukri team with Yalla Rugby website founder and local rugby photographer Alex Johnson.
Through his Kukri colleague Chris Marshall – an Abu Dhabi Harlequins player – Poole was introduced to USA Eagles’ team manager Dominic Budzisz.
In a 12-month period Poole has gone from managing the Yalla Kukri team to being asked to help coach the Cobras in both the opening leg of the 2017/18 World Rugby Sevens Series in Dubai this weekend, as well as the fourth leg in the US’ back yard, Las Vegas, next March.
Poole, 33, hopes it will all eventually prove to be a stepping stone towards a coaching career once he eventually hangs up his boots.
“I hope to gain as much experience as I can from this weekend,” said the Englishman, who has lived in Dubai for the last four years and played his first three years at Dubai Sharks.
“Rugby is my life and to work within a professional team is the dream, I’m too old to do it now as a player so why not as a manager or coach.”
It’s been a whirlwind 12 months for Poole, who has plunged into the challenge with both feet since being approached by Marshall – who himself has coaching experience on the USA 7s circuit.
Poole, who gained his coaching awards while on a rugby scholarship at the University of Central Lancashire in conjunction with Newcastle Falcons, added: “Last year I set up the Yalla Kukris with Alex, including all sponsors for our local Gulf Men’s Open team with Yalla Rugby and Kukri Sports in partnership.
“While I was working on that I also I took on the role as team manager/coach and it went really well.From there, I was introduced to one of the USA managers, Dominic. He and Chris asked me if I would be interested to do the same for them at the Dubai 7s this year and possibly forward onto Las Vegas.
“Of course, I said yes, and have spent the last eight months putting together everything we need, from Kukri kit, hotels, vehicles etc.”
Cobras head coach is Chris Roberts with Budzisz as manager and Poole, ironically from Poole in Dorset, admits he’s relished being part of the preparations for Dubai, where the Cobras face Germany Development, Georgia 7s and Froggies in the International Invitation Men’s division.
“As the weekend gets closer the conversations and communications are becoming regular,” added Poole.
“Some including plans with the USA which of course, I can’t really disclose. We also have meetings planned leading upto the tournament where I plan to gain further experience and insight.”
Poole has grand plans for his dugout debut and that of the Cobras in Dubai, aiming to end the weekend as champions.
“We feel as a unit we can win each game and become champions,” said Poole, who played against the UAE for the Conference Barbarians earlier this year.
“This is our short-term goal as we hope for this team to grow and be involved in further tournaments around the world.Next up is Las Vegas and Hong Kong.
“The talent in this squad is huge. We have some of the biggest names from the sevens circuit and we are extremely proud to have these guys play for us.
“Players from the USA squad like Chris Mattina and Kevon Williams coming into our squad means we are going to be up there in terms of the final.
“Add in the experience and talent of Ryno Benjamin, Wes Pooley and the other great players we have, we should be putting on a fantastic show for all the spectators and fans.
“Our aim is also to raise the profile of Kukri Sports in the Middle East in conjunction with our other sponsors while trying to bring the best rugby players to the Middle East. Kukri Sports is seeking to align itself as a brand with the best globally and I feel the Cobras squad reflects that.”
After missing out on glory in the Gulf Men’s Open with Yalla Kukri a year ago, Poole also hopes it will be a double celebration for Kukri this year.
“Yalla Kukri’s aim will be to dominate after cruelly missing out on the final last year.
“We have been training well for weeks with the six new players in the squad and it’s all going really well. We are focused on getting Yalla Kukri to become champions.”
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.