The UAE have come a long way in the last few years, but it is how far their potential can carry them that should have rugby fans in the Emirates really excited.
Performances and professionalism have come on light years since fellow dual code Samoa international Apollo Perelini took the helm in October 2015.
His first tournament as coach led to the UAE blitzing Uzbekistan and Thailand to storm to the Asia Rugby Championship Division II title last May, and a similar performance against Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines this May could be the beginning of an unbelievable, if unlikely, road to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Things didn’t always look this bright. In April 2014 the UAE were beaten 30-13 by Singapore to relegate them from Division I of the ARC. It meant successive relegations, having dropped out of the top tier Asian Five Nations in 2013 under Duncan Hall.
Whereas the UAE once regularly played the Asia powerhouses of Japan and Hong Kong on a regular basis, however, encounters were complete mismatches; May 2011’s 111-0 hammering at the hands of Japan the UAE’s record defeat.
Performances were hardly better prior to that. From 1993-2010, Emirates-based players qualified to play for the Arabian Gulf – a combined team of players from Arab states – prior to the UAE breaking away to form its own union and becoming the IRB’s 100th member in 2011. Their record defeat was also against Japan, a 114-6 mauling in May 2008.
Being relegated to Asia Rugby’s third tier has actually turned out to be to the UAE’s benefit. Progress was steady under Hall’s replacement, Roelof Kotze.
The South African’s team narrowly avoided bouncing straight back to Division I with the width of a rugby post in May 2015, handing Malaysia a 20-19 victory which ultimately saw them promoted at the UAE’s expense. Now under Perelini, forward strides are being taken.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins flanker Ben Bolger, one of the finest players in the Emirates, became eligible last year and captained the squad that steamrollered Uzbekistan 63-13 and Thailand 70-18.
Fellow Quin Luke Stevenson and Dubai Exiles skipper Glenn Moore will be available to Perelini for this season’s assault on Division I and that, combined with the rapid year-on-year improvement of the domestic game, is lending substance to belief the UAE could be on the cusp of something special.
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