UAE rugby players have been left “bitterly disappointed” by the news that the country has withdrawn from the Asia Rugby Championship this summer – in a move which casts doubt on the very future of the international side.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.
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