The UAE’s historic three-match unbeaten run came to an end as they were defeated by hosts Malaysia in a pulsating opening 2017 Asia Rugby Championship Division I encounter that could have swung either way.
Camped deep in Malaysia territory, trailing by seven having just fought their way back into the game through Kris Greene’s try, the game’s turning point arrived 10 minutes from time when Apollo Perelini’s men were penalised at their own scrum five metres out where a tying score had looked inevitable.
Instead, the under siege hosts cleared their lines and put the game to bed a few minutes later when UAE torturer Jone Nasalo rampaged his way into space and put centre partner Sakiusa Gavidi in for the game-clinching try.
It was a victory that Lee Nyuk Fah’s deserved overall, although the 14-point margin of it flattered his side.
UAE head coach Perelini admitted Malaysia played well, but thought his team could have been better.
“It was a frustrating game. There were some areas in which we could have been a little bit better,” said the New Zealander.
“It was very humid out there, it was unbelievable, but it was the same for both teams. The ball was like soap. We didn’t adapt to the conditions as well as we could have. There were a lot of mistakes, a lot of dropped balls. They scored some tries against the run of play and off minute mistakes, which cost us.
“But the boys stayed positive and knew they could claw their way back. I think overall the game got away from us too early. When you sit two tries behind in the first half it’s always going to be difficult, especially with the conditions and when you start pushing things.
“You make more mistakes and they had their tails up. They played well and I think we could have played better. We’re very disappointed. I’m gutted.
“I’m not one for relying on others to do the job for us, I really wanted to come here and do well in all three games, so it was disappointing. But the boys worked hard and were unlucky.”
It is a game the UAE will look back and reflect on what might have been, with the contest littered by handling errors and mistakes which were fully exploited by Malaysia and man of the match Nasalo in-particular.
The monstrous outside centre opened the scoring after 15 minutes when he chipped ahead in his own 22 and received a kind bounce of the ball to beat Sean Carey and streak home despite the attention of Greene.
Perelini’s charges’ response was instant though. Jebel Ali Dragons’ Ryno Fourie, on as an early replacement for injured clubmate Dan Bell, alerted Andrew Powell to a quick lineout. The Dubai Hurricanes man sprinted 70 metres and found the supporting Fourie alongside him when the cover came – the South African replacement touching down and Luke Stevenson leveling the scores.
They had a lucky escape when Ben Bolger’s dropped pass sent Malaysia clear but bad hands from the hosts allowed the defence to scramble and avert danger.
However, they did not heed that warning and after another error, Nasalo was alert to gather and dash clear to the line. There was another lucky escape when Dave Knight avoided a sin-bin for taking out Mohammedd Abdin after chipping ahead, Mohammed Fairuz bisected the posts to minimise the punishment and Stevenson’s own penalty saw the UAE trail just 17-10 at the break.
Their hard work to get back in the contest was undone minutes into the second period though when Nasalo, the thorn in their side, completed his hat-trick.
A cross-field kick from Mohammed Asraf was collected by winger Wong Wye who made ground before offloading to Nasalo who outpaced the last man to seal a memorable treble. A superb conversion from Fairuz stretched the lead to 24-10.
The UAE would not lie down though and after Asraf was sin-binned for a high tackle on Rikus Swart, who had looked destined to score after darting for the corner, his Abu Dhabi Saracens teammate Jaen Botes powered over from the resulting scrum, Stevenson narrowly wide with a difficult touchline conversion.
Back came the hosts with a bonus point score, Wye fighting his way to the line and touching down despite a desperate attempt by Dan Perry to stop him.
Just as they began to believe they would pull clear again, back came the pesky UAE to really make a fist of proceedings. Botes was again instrumental as he peeled off the scrum and put scrum-half Greene in for a deserved try.
Stevenson this time nailed a brilliant conversion out wide and the UAE began to sense the game was theirs for the taking.
They received the ball straight back as Singaporean referee Just Wang awarded a penalty for a late hit on Green after scoring and Perelini’s players swarmed forward.
Their handling was slick as they switched the ball from forwards to backs and went through the phases. Malaysia’s defence was creaking but just as the UAE look poised to strike from a five metre scrum, they were penalised and Malaysia’s relief was clear.
The ebb and flow to the game failed to yield but Fah’s men landed the killer blow, predictably, through Nasalo. His step sent him into the clear and when the last tackle came he calmly fed Gavidi who swan dived over for the crucial score.
He’s the UAE’s most capped rugby international, but proud Welshman Chris Jones-Griffiths reveals he might never have become his adopted nation’s record appearance holder had he been honest with selectors back in 2011.
The 36-year-old had played his whole career until then as a burly back-row forward, but admitted he adapted his game to become a mobile, ball-carrying prop when he went to UAE trials six years ago ahead of the 2011 Asian Five Nations tournament.
It sounds like a calamitous Laurel and Hardy sketch. But not only did Jones-Griffiths adapt, he thrived in the front row.
He made Bruce Birtwistle’s squad that year as the UAE finished third out of five teams, and the North Walian’s international exploits have certainly gone even further north since as he has gone on to appear 23 times in total.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ ‘Mr Versatility’ failed to make Apollo Perelini’s squad that won the Asia Rugby Championship Division II series in 2016, but the veteran was named by the New Zealander in his 28-man squad a few weeks ago and they get their quest for back-to-back promotions underway today.
The UAE open their Division I campaign against hosts Malaysia in Ipoh (kick-off 12:00 UAE time) and despite hoping he can extend his proud record, Jones-Griffiths admits he cares little for milestones with successive titles and possibly even a place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup on his and his teammates’ minds.
“It’s never been about setting records for me, it’s just fallen that way, but it’s something to be proud of,” said the Anglessey native.
“I went to trials in 2011 as a back row player, which I’ve always been. And I still count myself as a back-row player. I chanced my arm and went with the front row.
“I got my body in the right shape and was able to perform well, and we finished third that season in the old top division. That was a steep learning curve but I’m glad I did it. It’s added another five or six years on to my rugby career, so it’s great.
“I’m a proud Welshman who never wanted to play for everyone else, but coming out here and having the chance to play international rugby for another country is fantastic. It was beyond my wildest dreams but I think anyone would do anything to earn a cap and luckily I was one of the ones selected.
“I think it will matter to me more when I eventually hang up the boots and look back. It’s not something I thought about at the time, I just thought ‘if I can get the next one (cap) it will be fantastic’ and luckily I got a few more.”
Although his debut experience with the UAE was positive, the next few years were dominated by dark days. The men from the Emirates were relegated from the Five Nations in 2013 and tumbled to Asia Rugby’s third tier in 2014 after losing a play-off to Singapore.
But, under Perelini’s guidance, the national team are on the up, storming into Division I after pummeling both Uzbekistan and Thailand in 2016.
And, Jones-Griffiths believes the good times can continue to roll in Ipoh.
“The first few years with the UAE was very competitive and you were looking over your shoulder,” he said.
“Once you had the shirt you were desperate to keep hold of it. We had a period in the middle where some people would get new jobs and disappear after a few caps. There was me and other guys like Graham Murphy who stuck with it and we came through that period and we’re now on an upward curve.
“In my last involvement in Malaysia (2015), we maintained our status in Division II and then the boys last year did a fantastic job and stormed the competition to get promotion.
“Hands down I think this is the most talented UAE squad I’ve ever been involved with. And I can speak from experience. Looking around at the quality of this squad you can’t take anything for granted and hopefully it will be a really good tour.”
Even though he’s happy to have prolonged his career and might well be eying as many as three more UAE caps in Malaysia – Perelini’s men also face Sri Lanka and the Philippines – Jones-Griffiths admits he will be taking his rugby less seriously after returning from the Far East.
But, having swept the honours domestically with Quins at club level this season – winning a total of five trophies –he’s fired up to finish the campaign on a high note.
“I’ve had a fantastic club season this year. Quins swept the board so you can’t get any better,” he added.
“To be part of a successful national team at the end of the season would be the icing on the cake. It would be fantastic.
“I’m slowing down. I won’t be available, I won’t be prioritising rugby anymore like I have been the last nine seasons. I’ll still be in and out of the club.
“I’ll be doing pre-season and loosely be available for selection but if there’s family in town or a kid’s birthday, I’ll be priortising that over rugby.
With the way the club’s going with their recruitment drive, I don’t think I’ll be needed as much.”
The UAE depart for the Asia Rugby Championships in Malaysia Thursday full of confidence and will be bidding to win the competition to continue their quest for 2019 Rugby World Cup qualification.
Apollo Perelini’s men go into the tournament in fine fettel after two strong warm-up wins against the Conference Barbarians and the Premiership Barbarians.
Despite a slow start in both matches, the UAE showed resilience to close out the games in thrilling fashion and the team’s character will prove crucial when they step out against Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines over the next nine days.
“I can’t wait to go now. It’s been a long year waiting for another tour. It’s a step up this year but the squad is a step up too,” said Dubai Hurricanes captain Dave Knight.
“The back line is a lot stronger this year and that should help us. We’re confident for sure, we stepped things up against a very talented Premiership Barbarians side and now we are looking to go another level in Malaysia.”
One of the men who will be at the fore of UAE’s dominance up front is AD Saracens flanker Jaen Botes.
He said: “I can’t wait to put the hard work to the test and enjoy a great tour with great people. We have worked hard for this and we are sure it will pay off.”
The team fly to Kuala Lumpur ahead of their first game against hosts Malaysia on Sunday.
The winner of Division 1 will earn a place in the top tier of Asian rugby, where they will face the likes of South Korea and Hong Kong.
Should they progress to this stage of the qualifying progress, they will have two more phases of qualification in 2018.
Sunday, May 14 – Malaysia v UAE
Wed, May 17 – Sri Lanka v UAE
Saturday, May 20 – UAE v Philippines