Jaen Botes made his UAE debut a year ago but he admits he will still get butterflies travelling with the squad to participate in the Asia Rugby Championship series in Uzbekistan.
Apollo Perelini and his 25-man squad jet off to Tashkent on Sunday ahead of a Division II semifinal clash with the hosts on Wednesday.
Abu Dhabi Saracens behemoth Botes, 25, made his UAE bow as the country impressed in Malaysia 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on promotion following a 20-19 defeat to the hosts. He has since gone on to feature for the UAE in sevens and has been named in Perelini’s squad for the upcoming ARC series.
He may be a 6’ 4”, 117kg specimen, but the South African No8 admits to still feeling nervous pulling on the jersey of his adopted country.
“It’s funny. I think the butterflies will start kicking in when we get to the airport,” said Botes. “Everyone’s been talking about the trip and getting excited about spending time together.
“We’ve been training together for a long time and we just want to implement what we’ve been taught. And we want to go out and enjoy ourselves, but the butterflies will kick in when we get there. I’m very excited.”
Despite the pain of last year’s series, Botes denied feeling there is a sense of unfinished business at international level.
“I wouldn’t say so. It’s a totally new tournament,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on what’s ahead of us. What we’ve done is behind us. I don’t think anyone reflects on that. We’re all looking ahead. It’s a new year and a new tournament. It’s exciting times.”
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Two UAE-based rugby charities have benefitted from a Dh21,000 donation from a rugby team set up in memory of a former team-mate.
Speranza 22, featuring players who have previously played for Abu Dhabi Harlequins, have featured at the Dubai Rugby Sevens for the last three years.
They first took part in 2013, 10 months after former Quins youth prospect Marco Speranza died in a plane crash in his native Argentina.
The team, named after Marco and his birth date, have since raised money for worthy rugby causes and continued that earlier this month by presenting two cheques to the Mike Ballard Foundation and Try Rugby.
Ballard, a former Quin himself, was forced to give up the game playing for Quins against Jebel Ali Dragons in the 2014 West Asia Champion Club final.
He recently returned to Abu Dhabi to live and was on hand at Zayed Sports City on May 2 to receive a cheque for Dh11,000.
Speranza and Quins assistant coach Rory Greene said: “We were delighted to enter the Dubai Sevens for a third year in a row in 2015. This year was even more special as we were able to support not only the MBF but also Try Rugby.
“Mike continues to inspire us all with his physical and mental strength to overcome his horrific injury and we are all delighted to see him back in Abu Dhabi working and living an independent life.
“Try Rugby has inspired us all. To see the young players, many with severe learning or physical disabilities, find an environment where they feel part of a team and a club is an exceptional achievement.
“We are delighted that S22 were able to help. Marco would be exceptionally proud that S22 are supporting these two great causes.”
The Mike Ballard Foundation continues to help the American in his rehabilitation but is now also branching out to help others.
“Seeing the way Speranza 22 came together to support Marco’s family really helped me get through the grind of my rehab and physical therapy,” said Ballard.
“Now that I’m back on my feet, hopefully we can keep moving forward and help other people on their road to recovery.”
Try Rugby was set up by members of Quins to provide rugby to children with disabilities.
“Thank you to all at Speranza 22 for your support for Try Rugby. Your support will be the kick start our Abu Dhabi Harlequins Try Group needs to get this amazing cause reaching all the children it needs to,” said Try Rugby founding member Sema Faulkner, who collected a Dh10,000 cheque from Speranza.
“Our kids range from those with special needs, disabilities and just those who cannot cope with a competitive rugby environment.”
Nine months after the 20-year-old Speranza’s death, his friends got to the semi-finals of the International Open Men’s competition in Dubai. In 2014 they made the final, losing narrowly to Wyvern Harlequins who again put paid to their chances of success last year, beating them in the Trophy quarter-finals.
Greene paid tribute to the team’s sponsors, including Gulf Marine Services (GMS) and Etihad Towers.
Duncan Anderson, CEO GMS, said: “GMS continues to support S22 to promote rugby and all the values that are associated to the sport for young people.”
The Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors will be travelling to Madagascar and the Seychelles next month.
They will deliver equipment such as wheelchairs to medical facilities on both east African islands, as well as put on rugby coaching clinics and supply boots, kit and equipment, donated from clubs around the Arabian Gulf, to junior teams and players in Madagascar. They will also donate rugby kit to the Seychelles Rugby Union.
In addition, they will also play an exhibition match against the Madagascan national rugby team, known as the Makis, and set up links between clubs in the Gulf and the African nation.
The team comprises of players from clubs around the UAE, including Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Saracens, Dubai Hurricanes, Exiles, Jebel Ali Dragons and also other Gulf teams from Bahrain, Doha and Muscat.
Former Quin Mike Ballard was the inspiration for the team and indeed its pending goodwill mission. The American suffered a serious spinal injury when playing for Quins in 2014 and will act as the team’s manager on their tour.
After returning home for treatment, Ballard recently returned to Abu Dhabi to live and work, taking up a place at his old school, the New England Centre for Children with Autism.
“This is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity for everyone involved,” said Ballard of the mission.
“It just goes to show what a wonderful rugby community there is in the Arabian Gulf – with all the members once again coming together for a good cause, with a bit of rugby thrown in as well.”
The team is coached by former Doha captain, Winston Cowie, and UAE international Ed Lewsey, who is the director of rugby at the British School of Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.
Cowie said: “We have chosen Madagascar because it is a country that is rugby mad, with the third highest number of registrations in Africa, and because the majority of rugby playing children (90 per cent) don’t have access to rugby uniforms and gear.
“It is also a country where rugby is the national sport with over 48,000 keen participants.
“We want to do our best to not only distribute jerseys and wheelchairs, hold rugby coaching clinics and play a rugby match, but more importantly, we want to establish meaningful relationships between clubs and schools in Madagascar and the Arabian Gulf region.”
The mission is primarily sponsored by Air Seychelles, as well as Hill International Claims Group, McGettigans and Kukri.
There is still time to contribute to the cause. The Conquistadors aim to gather at least one full set of second-hand junior rugby kit from rugby clubs and schools in the Arabian Gulf, including jerseys, shorts, socks, boots, and balls for between Under-8s and U-14s. They want to gather enough kit to gift two full sets (one U-8 and one U-14) to each rugby club and school they visit – with seven clubs and three schools currently in the programme.
If you wish to donate a kit, email [email protected]