Euphoria was the overriding emotion 12 months ago. The UAE had just won their first-ever title as a fully-fledged rugby nation, strung together the longest unbeaten run in their brief history and earned promotion to Asia Rugby’s second tier.
Now, that fulfilling experience has been removed and all that is left is a feeling of emptiness. Apollo Perelini, his coaching staff and players must head back to the drawing board after a thoroughly wretched 2017 Asia Rugby Championship in which they followed three straight triumphs with three straight defeats.
Their campaign was blighted by a series of bad luck and bad judgement. Bullocking Number 8 Jaen Botes suffered concussion and broke his hand in the opening game, lively full-back Dan Bell broke his ankle, while Ryno Fourie missed the Sri Lanka game after being cited.
Hooker Josh Ives was extremely unfortunate to be sent off in that second game, which left the UAE with their backs against the wall to get anything out of the game, as well as with threadbare squad for the decider against the Philippines.
But the UAE’s discipline was sorely lacking throughout the tournament. At half time in their final game, they’d conceded 11 penalties. Against Sri Lanka there were 12 in the opening 40 minutes. Stats that are far too frequent to be a success at international level.
Handling errors were to be expected in the humid surroundings of the Far East, but they became a staple part of the UAE’s play as attacks constantly broke down.
And, inevitably, when they did concede possession, they were punished ruthlessly by the cunning and quickness their opponents possessed.
Above all else, pace was the biggest area in which the UAE were found wanting. All three opponents had rapid backs and devastating finishers who could score from anywhere on the field.
Malaysia’s marauding Fijian centre Jone Nasalo was their chief tormentor in game one, scoring a hat-trick. Fleet-footed Sri Lanka full-back Thilina Wijesinghe was the architect of their second defeat to the Brave Elephants.
And despite finding a more common ground against similar opponents in the Philippines and their powerful pack, the Volcanoes still possessed livewire backs Kevin Gordon, Justin Coveney and Patrice Olivier who could erupt at any moment.
The UAE squad was packed full of talent from the UAE Premiership. It was the best assembled in years. Yet genuine pace was lacking. Only darting Jebel Ali Dragons full-back/winger Fourie offered a genuine speed threat from deep – scoring two of their seven tries.
It was curious to see clubmate Imad Reyal omitted. The Sri Lankan-born full-back was part of the training squad but perhaps he was injured or simply overlooked, in favour of size.
A year ago, Dubai Exiles’ Charlie Sargent would have been a shoe-in for a place on the plane. Yet, much like Exiles 2016/17 campaign, the young flyer has failed to fizz, struggling for form and with injury.
Dubai Hurricanes’ Ian Overton, part of past UAE squads, was also left at home after a stop-start season.
Perelini has plenty of talented players at his disposal. Several will perhaps depart over the summer, but more will become available next year.
A year ago he bemoaned the lack of depth in his backs. And while the likes of Luke Stevenson, Kris Greene, Andy Powell and Sean Carey are welcome additions, in 2018 he must find some more finishers and pick a squad with greater balance.
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