Ben Bolger’s forced retirement from rugby has caused ructions across the UAE this week but his national team coach claims he’ll be missed for being a good man as much as his rugby prowess.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins flanker Bolger officially announced his shock retirement to teammates at training last Monday.
Only 28, it came as a surprise, but having suffered close to 20 concussions throughout his 23 years playing rugby, the former London Broncos player said he’d taken the decision with his health and family in mind.
And for the impact the loss of such a player will have on Quins and the national team, UAE coach Apollo Perelini says Bolger’s infectious and inspiring personality will be as equal a loss.
“All good rugby captains have to not just be good players, but good men, off and on the field, who command a lot of respect,” said Perelini.
“All the captains who have served under me have been good leaders, Niall Statham and then Ben, but they’ve been good men. They don’t do a lot of talking but they’re all action. And those two are all action men.
“They lead from the front. They’re not barking orders from the back, they’re at the front and showing the way. They don’t say much. They just say ‘follow me’ and Ben’s one of those guys.”
Having witnessed Bolger suffering a concussion while under his watch at the Asia Rugby Championship previously, Perelini admitted he had concerns about the player’s well-being.
“I had the discussion with Ben last year. He got concussed in the first minute of our first game and I was really concerned for him,” added Perelini.
“I always say to my players you’ve got two of most things but you’ve only got one head. I’m never going to put any player on the field that I feel will struggle, especially if he’s had concussion issues in the past.
“I was always concerned for Ben when I look at his history of concussions. It’s sad to think Ben won’t be on the field again but I think it’s the best decision for him. I wouldn’t want him to continue playing and then have problems later on in life.”
Looking ahead to next year’s ARC, where Perelini and the UAE will try to establish themselves in Division I after a rough landing in Asia Rugby’s second tier this year, the former dual code star admits Bolger’s loss will be felt, but he’s excited about a new wave of talent becoming available.
The likes of Quins prop Craig Nutt and Jebel Ali Dragons duo, powerhouse South African hooker Gio Fourie and explosive Fijian centre Sakiusa Naisau, all qualify for the UAE this season. And Perelini believes his squad will be infinitely enhanced.
“There’s a few players becoming available this year and I’ve been out to watch a few games and seen a few videos,” said the New Zealander.
“There’s a few boys who have already put their hand up. It’s always difficult to select a squad and it will be no different next year. There’s some really good players becoming available and they’re all putting their hand up.
“This past year we failed to adapt to the conditions and the competition (the UAE lost all three games v hosts Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines).
“I put that blame down to me. When the team is not successful I’m not going to make excuses and say it was the players’ fault, it’s my fault. They were my responsibility.”
Louie Tonkin is delighted with the undoubted progress his Bahrain side have made during his tenure having kept their unbeaten start to the West Asia Premiership season in tact on Friday.
Bahrain beat Dubai Exiles 18-15 at The Sevens – making it three games without defeat for the Welshman’s side as they head into a mini two-week break ahead of the sevens hiatus.
Having drawn 15-15 with Abu Dhabi Harlequins in their opening game – the first time Bahrain hadn’t lost in four games against Mike McFarlane’s men with Tonkin at the helm – and earning a maiden triumph against Exiles under his watch, Tonkin is hugely encouraged by his side’s start to the campaign.
“The three games we’ve had so far this season have been massive improvements on last season’s results,” said Tonkin.
“We lost to Exiles twice last year, we’ve not beaten them in my tenure so we’re really, really pleased. We lost to Quins last season and drew with them this year.
“We lost to Sarries away last year and got five points this year and we lost to Exiles last year too and picked up four points this year, so we’re improving on last year and improving each week too.”
Defeat meant back to back losses for Exiles, having opened their season with two wins, with the result following going down 22-18 the previous week to Jebel Ali Dragons.
Tonkin had previously steeled his charges for a testing early season period with Bahrain facing three away games on the bounce. And with two victories earned from their first two road trips, Tonkin now wants his team to complete the treble when Dubai Hurricanes are faced after the break on November 3.
“We’ve got two weeks to build to Hurricanes. They did well against Quins and seem to be improving under a very good coach in Mike,” said Tonkin after Canes lost narrowly 28-12 to Quins at Zayed Sports City on Friday.
“We’re looking forward to going back to Dubai and trying to pick up a third victory on UAE soil. It’s a difficult away period for us right now so that would be huge.
“We’ll focus on freshening up the environment and the bodies this week so if we pick up some points at The Sevens in a few weeks’ time we’ll be in a very good place going into the second half of the season.”
Just like Dragons rejoiced a week earlier having survived a late scare against Exiles, something they have regularly been on the end of in recent times, Tonkin was also pleased his side’s fortunes seem to have turned around.
“Exiles will feel hard done by as they had chances to win it and we had a little bit of luck, which is good because these sorts of games fell away from us last season so they’re falling our way for a change,” he added.
“It was a humdinger of a game, two massive packs going hammer and tong at each other. Our defence is growing week on week, we’ve conceded only one try in three games which is a great stat.
“The set-piece is going well too, we’ve had the same group of forwards for the last few games but our attack isn’t functioning very well right now.
“We’re not building substantial amounts of attacks on our opponents so that’s a focus in the next few weeks for us moving forward, and we feel when that clicks we’ll be in a really good position with our defence being so good.”
Despite the feeling of elation after they triumphed over Dubai Exiles last week, Paul Hart claims Jebel Ali Dragons are some way off the standard everyone at the club feels they can reach.
After a win against Abu Dhabi Harlequins was snatched away in the dying embers of their opening West Asia Premiership game against their fierce rivals a month ago – a late converted try saw Dragons defeated 34-33 – Dragons were on the right side of a tense result last week at The Sevens.
A 22-18 win was earned against hosts Dubai Exiles – although they survived a late try being disallowed for the home side. But veteran prop Hart claims a potential “banana skin” awaits in the form of Dubai Eagles tonight.
“The mood in the camp has been excellent this week,” said Hart.
“There’s been a massive turn out at training this week but we have been very honest and harsh with ourselves. We are nowhere near the standard we know we can be and the expectations our coaches have.
“We are taking the game against Eagles very seriously and know it’s a potential banana skin against a new but fast improving team. We are challenging ourselves to be accurate and produce a professional performance.”
As for the Eagles, they were brought back down to earth following their maiden win as a club – beating Abu Dhabi Saracens 17-11 three weeks ago – in a 28-12 defeat to Dubai Hurricanes last week.
But with another game and another week’s training under their belts, fly-half Sean Carey insists every little thing is helping their development.
“The boys were disappointed with the result (last week) which is a good thing,” said Carey.
“We thought it should have been a bit closer but we let it slip, and I think that comes down to concentration and experience. Those sorts of things will come later on in the season.
“But each week those things are getting better and we’ve been at training this week with the right mentality to go and target Dragons who we know are going to be very strong.”
The Premiership campaign takes a brief hiatus after this weekend and Carey insists Eagles will leave it all out on the field tonight.
“It’s really going to test us and we’re really up for it,” he said.
“We have a bit of a break after this so we’re going to give it everything. We’re growing and will put in a bigger performance again.”