Shane Fowley looked like a natural when he scored 14 points on the opening day of the UAE Conference rugby season – but the truth is the Irishman is more renowned for his ability as a footballer and gaelic footballer.
In fact, the 29-year-old full-back hadn’t fully learned all of rugby’s rules until last season – yet he still managed to help his side claim glory as they beat Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds to win the Confernece final.
An epic game ended with a last-minute try for Wanderers that saw them claim a dramatic 27-26 win in a game in which they had largely been second best.
Lifting the trophy meant Fowley claimed a unique individual season treble as he’d also won the league with his gaelic football side Dubai Celts and with his football team Dubai Irish too.
Fowley, from the village of Leitrim in Ireland, only started playing rugby for Sharjah by chance as they were short of players, but he admits he’s grown to love the game, even if he still has to juggle it with his first two loves.
“I’ve been at Sharjah three seasons but I only filled in for them because they were stuck,” said Fowley.
“Back then they were in bad old shape and they knew me from playing sevens through another connection, so I ended up playing with them. I’m actually more of a Gaelic football player or soccer player. I play both of them, but they cornered me into playing rugby.”
Although he’s a natural athlete so adjusting to rugby wasn’t completely alien to him, Fowley admits there were some teething problems – even last term.
“I’d never played before so I was still learning the rules even up until last season. I know most of them now,” he said.
“There was one incident last year where, in Gaelic, I’d usually solo (in gaelic football a player must bounce or ‘solo’ the ball every four steps) the ball.
“We had a penalty and I took a tap and all the opposition players started running at me and I was like ‘woah, woah, woah, what’s going on here?’, so that’s the Gaelic background coming in, and I think the kicking just comes through the Gaelic background.
Sharjah team-mate Isaac Porter also has a Gaelic background and Fowley admits a main reason why he’s still at Wanderers is that the club are sympathetic to his desire to play for Celts and irish.
“I do still play a bit of Gaelic – it takes a bit of balancing, but it’s pretty good because the tournaments are only once a month so Nic (Walters, Sharjah head coach) and the boys are pretty good with me, and the Gaelic training is just as hard as rugby, if not harder.
“They just tell me fill in and ‘kick it as hard as you can’ when I get it and I’ve enjoyed playing rugby.”
Great session last night! Almost 50 boys down... Record for the Wandies! pic.twitter.com/FZ6rfUqUm9— SharjahWanderersRFC (@SharjahRugby) August 31, 2016
Fowley is so immersed in all forms of football, that when Wanderers played Jebel Ali Dragons in a pre-season friendly a week before the Conference season kicked off, he had no idea why there was such a fuss made about their new head coach – Henry Paul.
He might be a universally recognised star in all three codes of rugby, but that meant little to Fowley, who’d barely heard of him as Sharjah were brushed aside 72-12 by the UAE Premiership juggernauts.
“I actually barely know of this Henry Paul lad, but I’ve heard the lads at the club chatting about him,” admitted Fowley.
“I’m not a huge rugby league fan so I wouldn’t really know who he is. I genuinely didn’t know who he was. We played Dragons the other day and Kiwi Dave (Sharjah’s New Zealand scrum-half Dave Ermerins) said ‘that’s Henry Paul’, and I was like ‘who the hell is he?’.”
Folwey quipped: “The question is has he heard of me?”
With Paul on board at Dragons and sweeping changes afoot, Fowley expects the team that pushed Wanderers all the way last season might be even better this season.
Sharjah and Dragons 2nds met in the Conference final in March, with Wanderers coming out on top 27-26 in a thrilling game that was fit to have graced any final.
It was Dragons who made the only dent on Sharjah’s unbeaten season – the two sides drew 20-20 in October during the regular season.
Fowley expects them to come back stronger as well as a host of other clubs.
“We played Dragons 1sts and they were awesome, so we can only imagine that’s going to funnel down into their twos,” he said.
“Perhaps a few of their (Dragons) first team lads will be dropping down. It was 20-20 last year and then 27-26 in the final so there’s nothing between us, and other teams will be good too, like Dubai Hurricanes, Dubai Exiles, Abu Dhabi Harlequins will be up there too.
“We beat them (Quins) last year and that was probably our best result as they were unbeaten at the time. It’s great there’s so many good teams there.”
As for defending the Conference title, Fowley and Sharjah are just setting their sights on qualifying for the Conference Top 6 stage first and foremost.
“The first thing was getting started, get the first win,” he said. “There’s lots of new players so there could be a lot of rotating. It’s just about getting in the Top 6 for us as a lot of teams will be improved.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work in pre-season so it’s good to get the first win. It’s not about bonus points for us it’s just about making the Top 6. As champions all the other sides will be looking for us so it’s good to get a first win.”
The last time Quins tasted defeat at Zayed Sports City was the 10-6 loss in the opening game of the2015 Gulf Top Six competition against Abu Dhabi Saracens.
In the 625 days that have passed since then, Quins have made their home impenetrable.
Dubai Exiles have come close to ending that run. Friday’s 25-18 victory for Quins close, but not quite as close as 12 months earlier when they led only for Barry Dwyer’s last-gasp try to give McFarlane’s men a 22-18 triumph.
Since losing to Canes, McFarlane has come in as Jeremy Manning’s successor, and he described the entire atmosphere surrounding the club as special.
“It’s a fortress,” he said of Zayed Sports City.
“The boys love being at home and getting a crowd like that. They’re really vocal and they get behind the boys.
“There’s a great atmosphere in the clubhouse afterwards too. We are one club. We’ve got the girls team there supporting us, the baa baas, the second team, lads not selected, the lads who were injured wanted to run water, everybody wants to be involved and everyone pulls together, that’s what makes us special.”
Dubai Exiles went into the game dealing with the news they’ll be without talisman Durandt Gerber until 2017, but Jacques Benade saw enough from protege Matt Travers in defeat to rivals Abu Dhabi Harlequins to suggest the young Englishman can step into the South African’s sizeable shoes.
There were the perhaps obvious signs of struggle early on as Travers missed his first three attempts at goal, though two were from extremely difficult positions.
The 21-year-old didn’t hide though and confidently nailed his next three as he visibly grew into the game during the second half in the lion’s den atmosphere of Zayed Sports City.
Travers is in the UAE on a placement year from studying sports management at Loughborough University, working for Dubai Sevens promoters Promoseven Sports Marketing.
His family have called the Emirates home though since 2009, and his head coach believes he is already beginning to find his feet in the Exiles first team.
“The longer the game went on the more he grew into it and he’s a promising player. I’m delighted that we signed him.”
Stepping into the void left by Gerber – arguably the finest player in the Gulf region – is daunting enough. Making your first start in a game as big as Quins v Exiles that was frenetic from start to finish just ramped up the pressure for Travers, but he took it all in his stride.