The fire still burns bright within Paul Hart, but having been an important part of the team that returned Jebel Ali Dragons to prominence this season, the veteran felt it was an apt time to bring the curtain down on his career.
It has been a colourful one too, including a brief playing stint professionally back home in the UK for Worcester Warriors, while Hart also earned England Students caps in both rugby union and league.
He played in Sydney and New York before coming to Dubai in 2010 in a bid to expand his recruitment business – and his eight-year spell in the Emirates has seen him intertwine himself in the fabric of a club and a sport that has progressed greatly in the last decade.
The UAE formed their own union in 2012, with Hart earning eight caps for his adopted nation under the guidance of former dual code Samoa star Apollo Perelini, while ex-New Zealand league and England union international Henry Paul was his coach at club level.
Hart was a prominent part of Dragons’ back to back treble-winning seasons in 2012/13 and 2013/14. There have been some lean times since, but a prolonged trophy drought was ended last month when Dragons beat Bahrain 36-32 to claim the West Asia Premiership title after a thrilling, closely contested campaign.
Hart turned 40 days before the final league game of the season and felt the landmark occasion, plus a first piece of silverware in four years, was the right time to hang up the boots.
“After 30 straight seasons I am happy to confirm I am retiring,” said Hart.
“I had my 40th birthday a few weeks ago and we clinched the West Asia Premiership so now is the right time.
“The West Asia Premiership is the one that all clubs want. It is the hardest to win as it requires consistent performances over a seven-month period.
“We have gone unbeaten away from home, which is no mean feat when you consider that Abu Dhabi Harlequins hadn’t lost at home for nearly four years and Bahrain two years.
“All of the clubs are very equal and competitive, so anyone can beat anyone on their day. That is why winning the Premiership is so much harder than a cup with one or two matches.
“Going nine wins and two loses in this highly competitive league is something we are very proud of as a club.”
Hart won his first UAE caps on the 2015 Asia Rugby Championship tour to Malaysia, going on to win eight in total as he featured again in Uzbekistan in 2016 and last year, again in Malaysia.
After showing signs of returning to prominence in Paul’s maiden campaign in 2016/17, Dragons roared back to life this year – fighting for UAE rugby’s major honours with Quins, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain.
Hart’s role was briefer this term than it had been previously, yet he remained an integral part of the club’s success – even playing the majority of the West Asia Cup semi-final defeat to Exiles at the end of March.
It was his very final game in the blue jersey after saying the Premiership finale against Bahrain weeks earlier would be his swansong.
“I started every single game last season (2016/17) for both Dragons and the UAE, which I was chuffed about,” said Hart.
“Being able to play tight-head prop at my ripe old age, stay injury free and get picked in front of quality players, was something to be proud of.
“This season, quiet rightfully, I have shared my time between the bench and a starting spot. Realistically, the starts have come when I have been covering for one of our injured, younger props.
“One of these games was our home victory against Bahrain where I played the full game. After 60 minutes our prop replacement came on so I started to leave the pitch, only to be called back as it was our 23-year-old prop who was going off.
“That was a great win against a brilliant team. HP (Paul) tried to bring me off in the 78th minute to stop me being able to brag about completing 80 minutes.”
But brag he should, after a career that has included playing professionally, representing two countries and featuring on four of the world’s seven continents.
Despite a storied three decades in the game, Hart insists Dragons has been his favourite experience.
“To play the last eight years of my rugby at Jebel Ali Dragons has been an honour,” said Hart.
“I have been lucky enough to play for six great clubs across four continents and the Dragons has easily been the best experience.
“Everyone is welcome at Dragons and the whole club make a massive fuss of any new player. It’s a proper family away from home for all the expats, the boys can’t do enough to help anyone who joins.
“During my time I have played with many outstanding players such as Andy Russel, Byron Kramer, Sean Crombie and Andy Buist. The current squad is ridiculous in terms of talent, coaching support and off the field organisation.
“The club has amazing support from main sponsor HESCO which shares the same values in terms of being fearless, yet humble. Having a home ground at Jebel Ali Resort also means we are just 12 minutes from the Marina.”
Another reason for Hart stepping aside is to concentrate on his growing young family, with wife Holly an ever-present support. No doubt though Hart is hoping his sons Lukie and Rupert will one day scale new heights with Dragons in their own right.
For now, he’s happy to stand down, knowing the club and game of rugby in the UAE is in good hands, though he will hope to put on the jersey once again at the Dubai Sevens next December.
He added: “I have seen huge changes in the game here over the years. Most of the changes are positive in terms of world class coaches, massive improvements in playing standards and highly competitive leagues.
“I am hoping to keep my spot as Vets captain to see if we can retain the Dubai Sevens title we secured for the first time in December. This will keep me involved as a player for one month at least and the rest of season as supporter.”
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