When the UAE took to the field to take on the might of Asia last month looking for a second-successive promotion, keen observers might have noticed that a very distinctive blue scrum cap was missing.
Said cap, belonging to former captain Niall Statham, was missing due to the fearless flanker actually deciding to call time on his international career before a ball was even kicked in Malaysia.
Being part of a UAE team looking to go for successive promotions following their lifting of the Asia Rugby Championship Division II title in May 2016 was something that had been driving Statham more than most.
Not only had the 31-year-old previously wrestled with the thought of retirement due to rugby’s increasing toll on the body as well as a young family to keep him busy – but the Scotsman missed virtually the entire 2016/17 season with injury, having torn ankle ligaments in the UAE’s successful ARC campaign in Uzbekistan.
It left the Jebel Ali Dragons flanker cursing the fact he was unable to play a significant part in early Henry Paul era after the former dual code star took the reins as Dragons head coach last summer.
It also left him with a sense of unfinished business at international level. Yet he began to realise over the course of the season, with the increasing depth of talent in the UAE ranks and rise of professionalism, that the time was perhaps right to put the eye-catching scrum cap in storage.
“It was a really difficult call but it was the best decision for me, my family and the team,” revealed Statham.
“The standard of playing and training is so high now you have to be fully committed to it. I didn’t feel I could give the team and coaches that whilst being there for my family.
“There were some more things I would have liked to achieve but I’m really thankful to Apollo (Perelini, UAE rugby performance manager) and the UAE Rugby Federation for all the experiences.
“The team is in fantastic shape and is full of talented players now who are younger, full of hunger and can launch it to the next level.”
Statham made his first appearance of the season for Dragons in February’s 25-22 West Asia Premiership defeat against Doha. He certainly didn’t look like a player who’d been absent for over half a season
Even though he is sad to have made the call to bring the curtain down on his career, Statham can be pleased with his contribution to the UAE – for whom he has earned 35 sevens caps and four for the senior 15 side.
“When I started the UAE had gone years without a Test win and were winless on the Asian 7s series; since then we scored a top eight finish in Asia, getting the respect of teams like Japan and Hong Kong,” added Statham.
“The 15s team were on a four-Test winning run and have been the highest climber in World Rugby. I’m really proud of where I’m leaving the system.
“Having played every game of sevens and 15s possible for UAE in the last three seasons it’s a good time to pass the torch. I discussed it a lot with Apollo and Mohammed Shaker (UAE team manager) and they’ve been really supportive.
“I’m also chatting to Henry about my role in Dragons next year whether it’s playing or coaching.”
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.
The UAE have learnt some harsh lessons from their 2017 Asia Rugby Championship and head coach Apollo Perelini insists the bitter disappointment will bode well for their future and that of the national team.
Perelini and his players had gone into the tournament dreaming of a second successive promotion into the ARC’s top three alongside South Korea and Hong Kong – there was even a sliver of a chance they could make the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The hue of that dream was muddied from an opening 36-22 loss to hosts Malaysia and two subsequent defeats to Sri Lanka and the Philippines left the squad absolutely distraught.
Injuries and suspensions certainly did not aide their cause and they battled valiantly in every game and made every opponent work for their win.
But, ultimately, they fell short. And it is an experience Perelini hopes they learn from.
“It’s not a great feeling, it’s a horrible feeling and I’m not quite accustomed to losing. That’s rugby unfortunately,” the former dual code Samoa star said.
“We’ll have to get our heads up and look to what happens over the next year or so. Some of the best teams in the world go through these disappointments.
“I’ve been in this situation as a player and it always makes you a better player. And I hope these players will learn from this experience. I think these players will respect the game of rugby being played outside the UAE.”
A killer score in all three games proved body blows for the UAE in Ipoh. In their opener against the hosts they were camped on the Malaysia line inside the final 10 minutes before being penalised for early engagement at a scrum, a Sakiusa Gavidi try minutes later sealing their fate.
Against Sri Lanka they fought tooth and nail in a second half in which 30 minutes were spent playing with 14 men following hooker Josh Ives’ harsh sending off, with Jesan Dissanayake’s try 12 minutes from time again proving decisive.
And, against the Philippines, they clawed their back from 23-13 down to lead 26-23 with 11 minutes to go, only to fall foul of Patrice Olivier’s late score.
Every defeat had more to do with the UAE’s own shortcomings as they did the talent of their opponents. And Perelini again feels the tournament provides an eye-opener for the level they must get to in 2018.
“I’m extremely disappointed with the result (against the Philippines),” said Perelini, who can at least look forward to leading the UAE once again in Division I next year after they were spared relegation – due to Japan’s hosting of the World Cup.
“The frustrating thing was we always planned for a good start, but we haven’t started well the whole tournament and to be behind again from the start became a mental battle.
“I’m afraid the team didn’t quite stick to the game plan and the skill level let us down at times in crucial positions, as well as missed tackles. We didn’t handle the game plan. When we do we can score tries. We haven’t failed to score tries or put phases together.
“It’s just the lapses in concentration, the odd dropped ball. The adjustment to the paces was also another big factor.
“Talking to the boys, they realise now the level they have to be up to in fitness, skills, strength, it has to be higher than what they’re comfortable with at club level.
“When you’re stepping out against these teams, these players are big and powerful and skillful as well. It cost us today and cost us all week. It’s a learning curve.”