UAE rugby players have been left “bitterly disappointed” by the news that the country has withdrawn from the Asia Rugby Championship this summer – in a move which casts doubt on the very future of the international side.
The news, while shocking, is made even more incredible by the fact no reason has been given. But confirmation was relayed to the Emirates’ big clubs on Monday by UAE rugby performance manager Apollo Perelini, who revealed that “due to circumstances out of my control”, the UAE men’s will not compete in the ARC’s Division I tournament, scheduled to be played in the Philippines from June 24-30.
The UAE have improved significantly under the guidance of former dual code Samoa international Perelini, who has dragged them up to 70 in the World Rugby rankings – the highest position they have occupied since forming their own union in 2012.
Perelini added to the mystery surrounding the decision taken by the UAE Rugby Federation, by telling Sport360: “I can’t make any comments regarding the issue.”
It leaves Division I to be contested by Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines later this year and leaves us questioning just what the future holds for UAE rugby at international level, with such massive strides made under Perelini.
They lost every single game in Malaysia a year ago as they competed in Asia Rugby’s second tier for the first time since relegation in 2014. But Perelini has harvested a supremely talented crop of expatriate and Emirati talent – who were spirited in defeats to hosts Malaysia (36–22), Sri Lanka (33–17) and the Philippines (34–26) in Ipoh.
Despite finishing bottom of the group, the UAE were spared relegation and were set for another crack at that trio, with many of last year’s squad left upset by the UAE RF’s decision.
“I don’t know the details as to what’s gone on and the reasons why but we’re bitterly disappointed,” said Abu Dhabi Harlequins fly-half Luke Stevenson, who made his UAE debut last May.
“I just know that myself and a number of lads who toured last summer were massively looking forward to making up for those results (if selected) and it’s a big shame that we won’t be able to do so.”
“Obviously it’s disappointing as I know the squad wanted to put things right this year,” said the UAE-born flanker.
“It didn’t really click last year and with suspensions and injuries we suffered. There are some very good players that would have been eligible this year so that would only have strengthened the squad. For lots of players it’s carrot at the end of the season for playing well.”
Although their opponents’ superior fitness levels eventually told last year, the UAE’s prospects were severely hampered by injuries to key players and suspensions.
But the annual influx of talented players into the domestic game has Dubai Eagles fly-half Sean Carey believing he and his colleagues could have closed the gap in 2018.
“All the lads were fizzing for another go at it after the disappointment of last year,” said the ex-Ireland Under-20s star.
“Looking back on the games last year we really weren’t that far off, some injuries and suspensions really stung us over the week.
“We felt we had potentially an even stronger team this year, obviously some key players have since retired but overall the quality of rugby has been getting better every year.
“The local lads that were involved last year definitely improved throughout the campaign as they were learning from some very experienced expats.”
And with the ultimate goal of improving UAE rugby as a whole, Carey is concerned this will take the UAE back several steps.
“I do feel that UAE need to be playing in these big competitions in order to grow rugby in the region,” he said.
“They should be trying to align their growth strategy the same way that Hong Kong do, they also have a strong expat community, it’s the same with Singapore.
“The local community and whole country would really get behind rugby more if they have a UAE team competing at the highest levels in Asia.
“In Spain rugby has now exploded due to them being so close to the World Cup and their team is made up of quite a few French-born players, so it can only have a positive effect down the line.
“I hope that it doesn’t have an adverse effect on the West Asia Premiership. A lot of lads really push the standard of the league with the goal of being recognised and having a chance to be selected by their adopted nation.
“There is a huge pool of talented players and coaches in UAE that can really help bring the standards of rugby to the next level.
“However, we must respect the federation’s decision on this. At the end of the day we all just want to see the sport grow in the region and both the clubs and country need to work together doing it.”
Instead of competing in the ARC, Perelini has scheduled a tour involving Gibraltar playing in the UAE next month, with the hope that three friendlies and one unofficial Test match can be arranged against his side.
Gibraltar will look to warm up for the UAE game against Dubai Exiles and Dubai Eagles, followed by a Premiership Barbarians (ineligible players) game as the penultimate warm-up fixture ahead of the April 27 clash with the UAE.
Craig Nutt admits Abu Dhabi Harlequins can’t afford to dwell in despair after they relinquished their grip on the West Asia Premiership last week – with the latest installment of their rivalry with Dubai Exiles taking place on Friday.
The two foes clash in the UAE Premiership Cup final – a new competition for the 2017/18 season, akin to the West Asia Premiership Cup.
And with Friday’s final, a semi-final in the West Asia Cup and UAE Premiership decider all to look forward to in the coming month, there’s still plenty of silverware to play for, and Nutt admits Quins must pick themselves up.
“To be honest the game last weekend was out of our hands and we just had to do our job which we did,” the Welshman said of the Premiership’s grand finale.
Quins beat Dubai Eagles but saw their hopes of retaining their title dashed as Jebel Ali Dragons gained a thrilling bonus point win in Bahrain, which gave them the title by just a point.
“We’re really looking forward to this weekend. It should be a really good game like the previous two meetings.”
A thrilling finale to the Premiership has made for a magnificent start to 2018 domestically, with four teams battling for the title meaning every week has brought some exciting showdowns.
And showdown is a fitting word to describe the relationship Quins and Exiles enjoy with one another.
Dragons may have been crowned Premiership champions, but it is Quins and Exiles who have been the UAE’s leading two teams in the intervening years between Dragons’ back-to-back trebles.
There have been some epic encounters between the pair – not least their two Premiership encounters this season, with Exiles going down 29-25 at Zayed Sports City in November before exacting revenge at The Sevens in a thrilling 37-30 win last month.
And there will surely be a few more in the coming weeks, with the duo not only facing each other on Friday, but also in the West Asia Cup semi-finals on March 23 and the UAE Premiership final on April 13.
And despite losing their West Asia title to Dragons, Nutt and Quins will relish the chance to still be going for three titles.
“We want to win every game we play in and the next few weeks there are three trophies up for grabs and we will want to win them all if possible,” said the former Abu Dhabi Saracens prop, whose side have the advantage of playing Friday’s final at their home of Zayed Sports City.
“But we know that would take a huge effort from the whole squad but that will be the focus and the target. We are playing the best teams in the region in the next few weeks which all the boys at the club will relish.
“We play Exiles this week and we will focus on that game and then move on to the next one.”
It’s been a frustrating few weeks for Exiles despite leapfrogging Bahrain on the final day a week ago to finish third in the Premiership. They earned a bonus point win but did so via a forfeit from Sarries – the second time the Al Ghazal club pulled out of a fixtures with Exiles this season, meaning the teams never actually faced each other in the Premiership this term.
Head coach Jacques Benade admitted he had been forced to bite his tongue at the time, but now he is looking forward to Friday.
“That’s in the past now. Friday’s UAE Premiership Cup final will be a great way of getting game time as last week’s game against Saracens was forfeited, again, and we also had no game the previous week due to a free weekend,” said the South African, who is clearly excited ahead of the final.
“There has been a lot of chat regarding fixtures, how hard it is to keep the continuity going if you play one game, two weekends off and then a game again.
“But the boys are just keen to get out there and play a bit of rugby to be honest, and with a cup to play for, even better. The players really stepped up from January, working really hard on the training pitch and are very exited to be involved in all of these games.
“We have one or two injury issues but are looking forward to a great game of rugby.”
And the South African is hoping the final lives up to the previous Premiership encounters.
“The last match between us was great and to be fair it’s been like that for the last three years so I am sure it will be great again,” said the former Emerging Springboks star.
“I am just so proud of our boys that we are now at the end of the season and we are in two finals and also in the West Asia Cup semi-final.”
The game of touch is thriving in the UAE but its rapid growth risks being curtailed by a lack of referees, according to two leading organisations behind the success of the sport in the region.
With the annual Zurich Corporate Touch 6s tournament set to boast a record 32 teams in 2018, and with grassroots take-up of the sport in schools reaching unprecedented levels, touch is one of the UAE’s fastest growing participation sports.
However, the number of new referees joining the game is not keeping pace with demand.
John Larkins, founder of METouch, the internationally recognised governing body for touch across the UAE, said: “Touch is still maturing across the region, with a lack of experience across all facets of the game – coaching, refereeing and playing.
“This means that those who do have the experience to referee are having to spread themselves too thinly, and it doesn’t help that people only seem to remember the referee when they make a mistake.
“More support and appreciation of refs is essential if we are to grow the existing small ‘pool’ in the UAE, which is vital for the future of touch in the Middle East.
“If we consider the huge numbers of youngsters playing touch now, we know there is a community of parents who could help and this is a target market for us.
“There also needs to be an increase in the number of senior players (under-15s and under-18s) refereeing junior games, as they do in netball.”
With the annual tournament taking place on this Friday, March 16, at Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club in Arabian Ranches, it is hoped this year’s event will highlight the crucial role that touch referees play and encourage more people to come forward for the sake of the sport’s future in the Emirates.
Nathan Stanley, a founding member of the Dubai-based Super 6s Touch league’s board, said: “Refereeing is often a thankless task due to a lack of respect for referees by both players and supporters, which can discourage many from taking up or continuing with the role.
“I firmly believe that clubs and teams could look to make refereeing courses mandatory for all players from early teens and upwards to ensure they understand the difficulties of the role and to enable them to gain a better appreciation of the rules.”
Although becoming a referee might seem daunting, the Super 6s League actively helps develop referees through its Federation of International Touch (FIT) certified referee qualifications.
It also ensures that a minimum of two referees officiate in its matches, which enables referees to learn from and critique each other.
According to Stanley, there are some key personable attributes required to become a successful ref.
“A great referee will have a strong knowledge of the rules, which is why players who referee help themselves to develop into more balanced and knowledgeable touch players,” he added.
“They will have effective communication skills and should be firm but fair. Being able to anticipate play developing is key, as is the ability to make clear and rational decisions in line with the rules of touch while under pressure.
“Above all, a good ref will instill confidence in players that he or she has the ability to facilitate the match fairly.”
And Larkins is laying down the gauntlet: “Many people are completely unaware of the amazing opportunities there are as a touch ref to teach and mentor both nationally and internationally, just as in rugby, netball and football,” he said.
“So we’re calling on more players, parents, supporters and generally anyone with a real interest in the game to step forward and take up the challenge.”
For more information on the Zurich Corporate Touch 6s tournament this Friday, visit www.ZurichCorporateTouch6s.com.
To register a team for the youth tournament (free entry), email [email protected]