Apollo Perelini will take charge of his first competitive game as UAE rugby performance manager today as his team get their Asia Rugby Development Sevens Series underway in India.
Despite ending Roelof Kotze’s tenure on a high last October with a top-eight finish in the 2015 Asia Rugby Sevens Series (ARSS), which should have guaranteed their participation in the competition later this year, the UAE have it all to do again in Chennai.
Perelini’s men have, however, been seeded number one in the 15-team tournament, with the winner gaining promotion to the 2016 ARSS, which will be played over three legs in Hong Kong, Korea and Sri Lanka.
Despite the fact the huge progress made last year has been made largely redundant, the players say there is a great vibe in the camp since Perelini’s appointment in October after Kotze returned to South Africa to work for the Pumas.
“We’re all feeling pretty good about this tournament. Personally I’m not annoyed and I think it’s good for us to start back up again in this tournament and use it as a building block,” said Dubai Exiles winger Charlie Sargent.
“There are a couple of new, young faces in the senior side so I think this tournament will be a good introduction for them.”
His comments were echoed by Jebel Ali Dragons duo Ian Overton and Niall Statham.
“It’s annoying as we worked so hard (last year) but it’s just another tournament to show how much progress we’ve made,” said Welshman Overton.
“It’s a bit frustrating because we battled so hard in the other tournaments and achieved some big results, but we’re number one seed for this tournament so winning this is the only thing that matters now,” added Statham, who led the UAE to glory as skipper last year.
The UAE have been drawn in Pool A along with old foes the Philippines, as well as hosts India, Nepal and Syria. They play Nepal in their opening game today and also face the Philippines and Syria on day one before taking on India and the knockout rounds tomorrow.
Saracens inflicted a first West Asia Championship defeat on Harlequins in a thunderous Abu Dhabi derby.
A super-charged encounter at Al Ghazal was characterised by countless big hits and aggression, with tempers boiling over regularly, although it was Sarries who kept their heads to record a hugely satisfying and deserved 25-10 triumph.
The immense power of their pack was again a feature, with the visitors simply unable to conjure an answer.
Sarries skipper Jaen Botes spoke of the need for his team to step up to the plate against their fierce foes and that’s exactly what they and he did, the South African scoring two of his team’s three tries.
Game over. 25-10. Sarries record a richly deserved and morale-boosting win against the perfect opposition. Hugely entertaining spectacle— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) February 19, 2016
Quins have rightly won plaudits for their fantastic brand of attacking rugby this season under Mike McFarlane, with pace and stamina two key strengths, but Sarries went toe-to-toe with their more illustrious neighbours.
Rather than fade in the second half, Sarries seemed to actually get stronger as the game wore on.
“The boys showed character and kept fighting,” said Botes. “In the week we said we wanted to play for each other and they did that.
“We’ve always known the effort and the talent was there. Against Exiles we were 14-3 down at half time but then switched off. We needed to go out there and play 80 minutes. It was a derby match and I think the boys stepped up because of that.”
Number 8 Botes put in a captain’s performance, opening the scoring inside 10 minutes, crashing over after collecting the ball from a five-metre lineout.
Quins were level within seven minutes, former Sarries centre Pieter Morton making inroads with a powerful run before partner William Umu powered to the line.
When Brian Geraghty was yellow carded early in the second half Stephen Hamilton took advantage to kick the hosts 10-7 ahead, although Matt Smith, taking over from the usually flawless Luke Stevenson after two missed penalties, soon restored parity.
From then on it was Sarries who took charge. They were getting under Quins’ skin and Botes stayed low from a ruck to dive over for his second try on the hour mark.
With eight minutes remaining another forward surge ended with replacement Phanta Quinsile crossing and Hamilton’s late penalty truly put the game beyond Quins.
Captain Phil Abraham said his side had not been consistent enough throughout the 80 minutes.
“We came out firing and put a good amount of pressure early on but we just fizzled out,” said the American prop. “They have a strong pack and we’ve got to be able to handle that and we didn’t. “We’ve got the tools, the weapons, but we didn’t adjust.”
Pieter Morton admits he will feel emotional stepping back onto the Al Ghazal turf when he returns to Abu Dhabi Saracens with new side Harlequins in the capital city derby.
The South African centre returns to the scene of where his UAE rugby career began on Friday night, nearly a year since his final appearance under the Al Ghazal lights.
That was last March, the week before Sarries were crowned West Asia Cup champions with an epic 26-20 triumph in Qatar against Doha.
Morton made a surprise switch across Abu Dhabi in the summer but only made his Quins bow three weeks ago following eight months out with injury.
His return to the field could not have come at a more opportune time and Morton admits he’s looking forward to seeing some familiar faces.
“There’s some great memories there. It’s a special place for me and it always will be no matter what happens in my rugby career,” said Morton, who completed his first 80 minutes last week against Dubai Hurricanes.
“It’s going to be a little bit emotional for me. It’s the place where I started my rugby career in the UAE.”
The two rivals face off with Quins third and chasing the title while Sarries are second bottom, but Morton is well aware form is likely to count for little.
“Nothing else matters but the 80 minutes. Sarries are second bottom and we’re third, but it won’t be about who’s in what position, it will be about the rivalry, it’s always a passionate game,” he said.
Sarries skipper Jaen Botes insists his side cannot wallow in self pity as that could lead to a mauling at the hands of their fierce foes.
“We have some work to do this weekend because Quins have a good team and perfect momentum at the moment, so if we don’t pitch up it will be a hard day at the office,” said the South African Number 8.