His team banished the pain of 11 years without a trophy, but the pain Dubai Exiles’ Kris Hughes had been harbouring deep inside was far more raw and real as his emotions finally overcame him at the final whistle.
The Scotsman lost his dad suddenly to pneumonia in April, but paid the perfect tribute to his “biggest fan” yesterday as Exiles claimed the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens.
Exiles earned a thrilling come from behind victory against the Jebel Ali Dragons juggernaut that had steamrollered teams throughout the weekend. For 24-year-old Hughes it was justification for not jacking rugby in as he had felt like doing when receiving a phonecall seven months ago telling him the devastating news his dad Stephen had died after a short illness.
“I was due to fly back as a surprise for my family five days later so just missed out on seeing him, which was the worst part of it,” revealed Hughes, a personal trainer.
“It was heartbreaking. 12 hours later I was back in Scotland, I just grabbed the first flight there.
“It was sudden. I came home from work one day, the phone went in my flat and that’s when I got the news. There was no warning.
“It was bronchitis pneumonia, he’d been in hospital for a few days, which I didn’t know about. He started having breathing problems. He wasn’t in any pain, he went peacefully which is something I was thankful for.”
It’s often been said that the UAE rugby community is like your second family, and Hughes certainly needed his Exiles brothers for support after his dad’s death, which hit him harder being 3,000 miles away from home.
His immediate reaction was to take a break from playing rugby. But his coach at Exiles, Jacques Benade, persuaded him to stick around.
That encouragement and Hughes’ determination to keep going and honour his father paid off in the most perfect way yesterday and he felt like his father was there with him in spirit, in addition to the word ‘dad’ he has etched into the strapping on both wrists since his death.
“That took a lot of the drive to compete away from me because he was my biggest fan,” added Hughes, who actually only started playing rugby in his mid-teens after a career as a promising goalkeeper with Hibernian and Rangers stalled.
“We’d talk about everything after every game so I wasn’t sure if playing sport was going to feel right anymore.
“I was going to take a year out from rugby but Jacques convinced me to stay and play another year, and I’ve dedicated every game and every performance to him (dad) which is why I get my wrists strapped every game, for him.”
Hughes admitted to feeling emotional in the tunnel prior to the game and taking to the main Pitch 1 at The Sevens Stadium in front of thousands of raucous fans.
So a stomach-churning encounter in which they were faced with an early 12-0 deficit against fierce rivals Dragons was probably the last thing he needed.
Former Exiles player Matt Richards burst through to open the scoring after barely a minute and before they knew it Exiles were two tries down, Nick McCashin cashing in, and on the precipice.
But they kept their composure and reduced arrears when Tomas Sackmann capitalised on an error and surged over, Durandt Gerber’s conversion making it 12-7.
As Exiles grew in stature, Dragons wilted in the heat, seeing Scott Hayes and Richards sent to the sin-bin in quick succession before the interval for infringing near their try line.
It didn’t work and Exiles were level when Sackmann went over again to tie the scores after the hooter.
In a thrilling second half, Thinus Steyn’s brilliant cover tackle prevented Richards from giving the lead back to Dragons. A third Dragon, Niko Volavola, was then shown yellow as Exiles again threatened.
They wasted the opportunity but were soon celebrating taking the lead when Terry Jacobs cut through the line to go in under the posts with 20 seconds remaining.
Dragons had one more chance but a knock-on ended the contest and sent the Exiles players and sideline into frenzied celebration.
Having discussed with his dad last year how special it would be to win a title at the Sevens and with Hughes planning to head back home at the end of the season, the man from Rutherglen is rapturous about the memory he’ll get to take back to South Lanarkshire.
Hughes said: “I’ll probably move back to Scotland at the end of April/May so to get an opportunity to play, never mind come away with such a fantastic result, it means the world to me and will be a memory I’ll take with me for the rest of my life and my career.
“I spoke to dad about it last year and he told me if I got to the final it would be one of the highlights of my career, so to get the opportunity this year means a lot.
“Just going on the pitch was emotional enough and it was hard to fight back the tears. The euphoria and the memories, it all just kind of collided at the final whistle when we won. It meant a lot more to be than just stepping out on that pitch. I was doing it for someone else.
“It feels good, like I’m still doing something for him. I wasn’t going to do any sports but he was so passionate so there’s still that connection.
“He loved watching me and my brother competing so to keep it going means a lot to me. Everything I do now I do it for him, it gives me that extra boost. And it’s a perfect tribute to him.”
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