As incredible as it may sound, the UAE have a chance of appearing at the next Rugby World Cup in Japan in two year’s time. That chance may be about as remote as the very notion once held that rugby might thrive and flourish in the land of sand.
Yet, here the national team stands, on a three-game winning streak, and about to embark along a path that, however long, can lead all the way to the Land of the Rising Sun in 2019.
Stronger collectively and individually as they head to the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) Division I series than they probably ever have been, and with a legend of two codes of the game overseeing their development and plotting their future success.
Apollo Perelini first mentioned the dream of striving to reach the 2019 RWC when he spoke with UAE journalists last summer. It wasn’t in a throw-away, empty sound bite. He spoke as if he believed it was a distinct possibility.
“Is it possible? Absolutely, yes. It’s achievable,” says the 47-yearold, his trademark beaming smile adorning his face. “I’m not shying away from it, I’m actually quite excited about it. Aim for the stars and if you hit the moon you’ll be fine. “It’s always a goal. As far as the UAE are concerned, we want to progress in the rankings, and the only way to do that is win games. The way to progress is win Division I, get a spot in the top three and hopefully have a shot at qualifying.”
It sounds magical, but there is of course a little fantasy to the dream. There are many complications ahead and those stars Perelini talks about will have to align almost perfectly if the UAE are to get there.
First of all they have to win the ARC’s Division I in Ipoh, Malaysia, which kicks off on May 14 – with the UAE competing against the hosts, as well as Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Victory there would earn them a place in the ARC top three competition for 2018 – contested currently between Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea.
With Japan already qualified for RWC 2019 as hosts, the winner of next year’s ARC advances to an inter-continental play-off against an Oceanic qualifier – home and away – with the winner of that advancing to the final stage, the World Repechage.
This final phase of qualification, should the UAE make it that far, would pit them in a round-robin tournament against the last teams standing in Africa, the Americas and the loser of a Europe/Oceania play-off who would get another shot at qualifying. The winner of this exhausting process will qualify for Japan 2019.
“We want to win Division I so that we can challenge for the top three,” adds Perelini. “Win that and we’d go into a play-off probably against one of the Southern Hemisphere teams, from the Australasian competition. Win seven games as a national team and you could go to the World Cup. We’ve got the cohort of players. There’s good enough players.”
While the reality of the UAE featuring alongside rugby’s great nations like New Zealand, England and South Africa in Japan is scarce, the evidence is clear that rugby in the Emirates is getting stronger, with professionalism creeping ever nearer.
Another legend of rugby, former New Zealand league and England union international Henry Paul, is coaching Jebel Ali Dragons. Jacques Benade, who represented the Emerging Springboks and only missed out on full South Africa honours in large part because he had Joel Stransky, Jannie de Beer and Henry Honiball ahead of him, is in charge at Dubai Exiles.
These figures, the influx of quality players and the general rise in standards has seen club rugby develop at an impressive rate as well as assisted the national team gather momentum since arguably their darkest day as a fully-fledged nation three years ago.
In 2014 they lost a play-off to Singapore, their 30-13 loss at The Sevens on April 23 seeing them relegated to the ARC’s Division II, Asia’s third tier.
From that low point, however, it’s been a series of highs. Promotion back to Division I at the first attempt was denied by the width of a post as a missed conversion in 2015 saw the UAE beaten 20-19 by Malaysia – alongside victories against Thailand and Chinese Taipei – who went up instead.
Last year though, the UAE stormed into Division I – thrashing Uzbekistan 65-13 and Thailand 70- 18 – to win their first title, and set their longest winning streak.
“Last year was the first tournament we won, and the margin of victory against the two teams was an indication of where UAE rugby is at, at the moment,” adds Perelini. And Perelini feels the standard that coaching is reaching towards in the UAE is a major factor behind the rise of the national team.
“What’s helping in my job is the quality of coaching in the UAE,” he says. “My concerns and the concerns of Duncan (Hall, former Australia international and UAE’s first fulltime coach in 2012) over the years and Roelof (Kotze, Perelini’s predecessor) are it’s very hard to select a national team if the quality of coaching in the UAE Premiership is not as high.
“But these last two years it’s gone up a level and it’s making my job easier in the sense that you’re not having to upskill the players when you bring them in. “But it’s also making it a lot harder because more players are putting their hands up to play for the UAE. It’s giving me headaches of a different kind, but they’re good headaches to have.”
Despite the dark days, it has to be remembered that the UAE has only been a recognised rugby nation for seven years – forming their own governing body in 2010 following the break-up of the Arabian Gulf RFU. It became a fully-fledged member of the IRB (now World Rugby) only in 2012, so it’s understandable that progress was slow.
A record of just three wins in 19 games between 2010-14 is indicative of that. Since then, however, their record reads: Won 4, Lost 1. Progress has been rapid, and although the challenge of reaching RWC may be insurmountable, it’s one the current squad are fully committed to.
“It’s a long old road certainly, but with the team we have now along with a few others who qualify next season who knows what this side can achieve,” says Dubai Canes lock Daniel Perry, vice captain to Ben Bolger on this year’s tour. “Promotion achieved was the first goal and we don’t just want to compete this year but go on another level.”
“It’s a step at a time for me. We came a long way since 2015 and we just need to keep building and going forward,” adds Abu Dhabi Saracens’ bullocking South African Number 8, Jaen Botes.
“We still have a lot to achieve, still a lot of potential as a squad and federation. I’m sure this will give everyone that extra bit of drive to go forward. I look forward to the hard work and to compete in the division we should’ve been in last year. Full steam ahead.”
In Ipoh the UAE play Malaysia on May 14, Sri Lanka on May 17 and the Philippines on May 20.
UAE RUGBY TIMELINE
The Arabian Gulf was a combined team of players from Arab states of the Persian Gulf including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The team was governed by the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU).
They play their first international on July 3, 1993, losing 64-20 to Namibia. Their biggest win came in a one-sided 97-3 mauling of India on April 27, 2001, and their biggest defeat when they are thrashed 114-6 by Japan on May 3, 2008.
The Arabian Gulf participated mainly in friendlies until entering the inaugural 2008 Asian Five Nations alongside South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan. After losing all four matches and finishing last, the team was relegated to Division I. They won Division I in 2009, securing promotion back to the Asian Five Nations.
On January 16, 2009, the International Rugby Board (IRB) announces that the AGRFU would be split into separate national unions and would cease to exist by the end of 2010. The first new union to be formed was the UAE Rugby Federation, which became a full IRB member in November 2012 – the governing body’s 100th nation.
The Arabian Gulf’s last game is a 21-19 win over Korea on May 14, 2010 at the 2010 Asian Five Nations.
Over the next four years, the UAE make little headway as a stand alone nation – losing 16 of their 19 competi – tive fixtures: two wins came in the 2011 and 2012 Asian Five Nations v Kaza – khstan and a draw with Sri Lanka.
Finishing bottom of the 2013 Asian Five Nations sees them drop into Division I.
The following year they lose a play – off, 30-13 to Singapore, to drop into Division II and Asia’s third tier.
In May, the UAE taste victory for the first time in three years as they beat Chinese Taipei and Thailand in the revamped Asia Rugby Championship series, Division II, but they narrowly miss out on promotion back to Division I as hosts Malaysia advance following a 20-19 win.
After rugby performance manager Roelof Kotze departs for a job back in his native South Africa in October, former dual code Samoa star Apollo Perelini comes on board to replace him.
In Perelini’s first tournament in charge, the UAE thrash Uzbekistan 65- 13 and Thailand 70-18 to earn promotion back to Division I and put together successive victories for the first time in their history.
The UAE will head to Malaysia in May for a chance to earn promotion back to Asia Rugby’s top tier for the first time in four years and an unlikely shot at qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
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Apollo Perelini could announce his 27-man UAE squad for the Asia Rugby Championship Division I tour to Malaysia today and he admits he will do so with great difficulty after a number of players impressed in Friday’s 35-15 victory over the Premiership Barbarians.
The UAE struggled initially in their first trial match against the Conference Barbarians a week ago before eventually winning 36-24 and had to again come back from a 10-0 deficit at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club.
But they head to Malaysia in fine fettle following their two warm-up victories and Perelini is not relishing culling five names from his squad – with his squad possibly being revealed later today.
“There were a lot of good individuals,” said the New Zealander.
“I’ve got to cut the squad down in the next couple of days but I’ve picked up a few injuries I wasn’t anticipating, so I’ve got to look at the cover I’m going to need, but a lot of boys put their hands up last night which will make selection difficult.
“But it was always going to be difficult because there’s a lot of talent there. I thought Luke (Stevenson, Abu Dhabi Harlequins fly-half) really stepped up to the mark. He really controlled the game and took our boys around the field.”
Stern tests against the best of the Conference and Premiership were exactly what the former dual code Samoa star had asked for, and Perelini has enjoyed what he has seen from his players over the last two weeks.
“It was a good final preparation for Malaysia,” added Perelini, who will lead the UAE as they attempt to win Division I for a chance to play a playoff to get into the top tier ARC.
“The boys really fronted up and put into practice a lot of things we’ve been training on. Also there was a lot of buy-in from the team, considering the time we’ve had together. There’s a real attitude to play for each other.
“I want the boys to believe in what we’re doing. One thing was to challenge our attitude and character and the other thing was to get a buy-in to the team structure and how we want to play.
“The Barbarians team was a very good team. Lots of (good but) ineligible players. They played in the away strip of the UAE and it was quite nice, it was like two national teams going at it.
“It was a good night and they were well coached by Mike Wernham (Dubai Hurricanes head coach) and Mike McFarlane (Quins head coach). They had good experience and it was a great test.
“It was like a mock exam. We needed to find out what areas we can improve on and we did that against a really good team.”
They might have scraped through in their first trial match, but the UAE squad are not concerned by the fact they had to grind out victory against the Conference Barbarians last week.
Apollo Perelini’s charges were 14 points down at one stage and trailed by five heading into the final quarter at The Sevens before rallying late on to claim a 36-24 victory.
Their task only gets harder Friday as they face Mike McFarlane’s Premiership Barbarians at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club but the players are relishing another stern test to prepare them for the 2017 Asia Rugby Championship series in Malaysia next month.
“I think we showed a lot of character in that game after trailing with 14 points at once stage,” said Jebel Ali Dragons winger Ryno Fourie.
“It’s always difficult playing these trial games as you play quarters with different combinations and tend to lose your momentum, however, I think we really started to get our structures right in the last 20 minutes. We wanted more and I think our fitness helped us close the game out.”
Perelini and his players will expect a tough game against McFarlane’s side – which will feature the likes of Quins duo Patrick Jenkinson and Andrew Semple and Dragons pair Matt Henry and Sakiusa Naisau.
But Fourie insists the players are not feeling forlorn after being pushed so close by their Conference counterparts.
“Going into the Premiership game will be another test for us and I feel we have to step it up a notch,” added the South African flyer.
“Apollo told us that he’s not concerned about the result but he is looking how we implement our structures. What also helped us prepare for this Friday’s game was a video session on the Baa Baa’s game to analyse where we could improve.
“All of us are gelling nicely and we will play for each other going forward. The Premiership players are the best in the region and we want to test ourselves against the best.”
His feelings are shared by compatriot Jaen Botes and Dubai Exiles captain Glenn Moore – who is hoping to have done enough over the two games and training sessions to earn a spot on the plane to Malaysia and a first cap for the UAE.
“I think we are confident that things will click for us if we can just get our set piece right and settle into our patterns a bit,” said Ulsterman Moore.
“Hopefully that first game has got rid of any nerves boys might have and we can just keep improving from here.”
For Botes, the Abu Dhabi Saracens’ man mountain of a Number 8, he sees no negatives from the manner of last week’s win and is just excited for the games ahead.
“We know that it will be a good challenge for us this weekend and we just want to improve on our last performance and look to set better standards,” he said.
“I’m excited and hope to improve on many things myself and I’m sure every person in camp has the same mentality. These are exciting times and it should be a good run around on the weekend.”