For Apollo Perelini, selecting Abu Dhabi Harlequins talisman Ben Bolger in his 25-man UAE squad for the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) was a no-brainer.
The 26-year-old is a natural leader on and off the field.
Vocal. Tenacious. A grafter. He’s exuded all of these traits and more during his three years as a Quin. He is any coach’s dream.
He’s probably been the first name on Quins coach Mike McFarlane’s team-sheet every game this season and UAE rugby’s performance manager Perelini has been so impressed with the newly eligible Bolger he has penciled him in as his vice-captain behind skipper Niall Statham for the tour to Uzbekistan.
Observing the UAE’s final training session on Tuesday night at The Sevens before they jet off to Tashkent on Sunday ahead of their Division II semi-final clash with the hosts next Wednesday, Bolger’s voice was audible above any other, cajoling and encouraging his colleagues.
You somehow feel he would be just as boisterous even if he was not in a position of power.
“To be honest even if I wasn’t captain, the sort of person I am I wear my heart on my sleeve and I’m a proud person,” admitted Bolger, who left behind a promising rugby league career with London Broncos to move to the UAE three years ago.
Bolger had also been on the fringes of the England Under-20 set-up in his teenage years but admits he is only interested in looking forward and earning promotion to Division I of the ARC with the UAE.
“I’m the worst loser and I’m a competitor so I’ll do my best to lead, that’s whether I’m vice captain or a normal squad player, nothing changes,” he added.
“I’m sure it’s the same for Niall. We’re here and I play rugby to win. It’s never as fun when you’re losing, so it doesn’t matter to me. I’m still going to be vocal and drive the team forward.”
After coming so close to winning Division II a year ago – only a 20-19 defeat to hosts Malaysia prevented the UAE from going up – Bolger insists there is only one thing on their minds this year.
The UAE team hold their final training session prior to their departure to Uzbekistan on Sunday pic.twitter.com/j1WuwEKifz— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) 10 May 2016
“We’re all here for one reason,” he said.
“It’s a good bunch of boys, it’s been nice to get out and play with players you’ve played against all season and get to know them a bit better, but we need to make sure we go and do what we set out to.
“We’ve definitely got our eyes on the prize, we’re not interested in coming second or third. It’s all or nothing.”
Bolger will convert to inside centre from his accustomed outside flanker role with Quins, although it’s a position his coach his comfortable putting him in.
“He’s slotted into an inside centre role really, really well. Not many players will get past him, he’s a strong defender and he’s got good hands, is a strong runner,” said former dual-code Samoa international Perelini.
“He’s a leader. I’ve put the guys there (him and Niall) strategically because they command respect from their peers. They’re the guys you want in the trenches when the backs are to the walls. You need guys who others will want to follow.”
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The UAE’s chances of promotion to Division I of the Asia Rugby Championship may have been enhanced following Kazakhstan’s withdrawal from this year’s series.
The Kazakhs, due to face Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Malaysia in Division I in Malaysia this week, pulled out a week before the tournament due to financial constraints. The country’s government said it was only funding sevens rugby as it is an Olympic sport, with the men’s 15s programme subsequently suspended.
As a result Kazakhstan’s women’s team have also pulled out of the Asia 3 Nations and will also miss the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland next year.
Singapore, relegated from Division I last season, were due to take on Uzbekistan in Division II in Tashkent later this month, with the winner meeting either Apollo Perelini’s UAE or Guam on May 21.
They will now be re-instated to Division I, with Thailand taking their place in Division II.
The news was welcomed by Singapore, who were relegated to Division II following losses to the Philippines (20-17) and Kazakhstan (32-12). National team captain Gaspar Tan said the team is determined to make a strong return to the tournament.
“After dropping out of it last year, we were disappointed, and we intensified our training with the aim of getting back again,” said the 27-year-old.
“We have automatic promotion now, and we must aim to stay in Division I and perform better than last year. The target is to win at least two matches to remain there.”
On paper, at least, it looks like a decision that will benefit Perelini’s side, who are the second lowest ranked nation in Division II – currently 83rd in the World Rugby standings. Thailand (76th) and Guam (73rd) are both above them, with hosts Uzbekistan ranked 87th.
Division I is currently taking place in Kuala Lumpur with the tournament ending on Saturday.
The UAE fly to Tashkent the same day and will play Guam in a semi-final a week on Wednesday. Win that and they will face the winner of Uzbekistan and Thailand.
England head coach Eddie Jones has named eight uncapped players among a 26-man squad for a three-day training camp in Brighton.
The group includes Northampton’s New Zealand-born back-row forward Teimana Harrison, Sale Sharks back Mike Haley, London Irish wing Alex Lewington and Bath lock Charlie Ewels.
England captain Dylan Hartley is also part of the squad – as is Sale fly-half Danny Cipriani – as Jones prepares for a Twickenham clash against Wales on May 29, followed by next month’s three-Test Australia tour.
The camp takes place from May 17-19, with training at Brighton College. No players involved in the Aviva Premiership play-offs, which will be contested by Saracens, Leicester, Exeter and Wasps, were considered.
Jones said: “The Brighton training camp is a good opportunity for England to get together and train hard ahead of the Wales game and summer tour.
“While we will be without those players involved in the Premiership semi-finals, it’s crucial that we spend as much time together as possible. We have an important game at Twickenham at the end of the month, and then a challenging tour to Australia.
Great news 4 Danny Cipriani. Called into England training squad. He's worked so hard this season couldn't deserve his chance more. Well Done— Steve Black (@B1ackie) May 8, 2016
“It’s a challenge that really excites us, and we are looking forward to starting our preparation. There’s lots of hard work to be done if we are going to play with the intensity needed to beat southern hemisphere teams.
“We know the speed of the game in Australia will be considerably higher than the RBS Six Nations, so this short camp, as well as the preparation time ahead of Wales, is going to be vital to our progression.
“Tour places are still up for grabs, and I expect the players in this camp – as well as those involved in the play-offs – to continue to make their case for selection.”
England’s Twickenham appointment with Wales will see them back in action for the first time since a first Six Nations Grand Slam for 13 years, which was secured by a victory over France in Paris. England face Australia on three consecutive weekends, on June 11, June 18 and June 25.
Backs: M Brown (Harlequins), L Burrell (Northampton), D Care (Harlequins), D Cipriani (Sale Sharks), O Devoto (Bath), G Ford (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), M Haley (Sale Sharks), A Lewington (London Irish), S Rokoduguni (Bath), A Watson (Bath), M Yarde (Harlequins), M Young (Newcastle).
Forwards: D Attwood (Bath), K Brookes (Northampton), J Clifford (Harlequins), C Ewels (Bath), D Hartley (Northampton), T Harrison (Northampton), P Hill (Northampton), M Kvesic (Gloucester), C Lawes (Northampton), J Marler (Harlequins), C Robshaw (Harlequins), K Sinckler (Harlequins), T Taylor (Sale Sharks).