Despite being played in the desert, there wasn’t a dry eye in 7he Sevens Stadium on Saturday as Abu Dhabi Harlequins dedicated their Gulf Men’s League triumph to incapacitated former player Mike Ballard.
The US prop suffered a spinal injury playing for Quins against Jebel Ali Dragons in the ARFU West Asia Champion Club final on April 4 and has since been recovering back home in Michigan.
Despite being confined to a wheelchair for the time being, the immensely popular American flew more than 7,000 miles to be with the team in the Dubai desert this weekend.
Quins made Ballard’s visit count, breaking the hoodoo of losing in the final for the last three years to record a convincing 24-5 win over Doha.
Flying winger William Umo opened the scoring, Charlie Farmer made it 10-0 soon after and Umo was then instrumental in the move that sent Sam Bolger under the posts to make it 17-0 at the break.
Doha, who had lost 24-19 to Quins in the 2002 final, got on the scoreboard in the second half with an unconverted try, but the powerful Iziq Foa’i sent Bolger in for his second to seal the win.
A hugely emotional Ballard said: “It’s a cliche that words can’t describe it but this is what’s been helping me get through therapy.
“I’ve been waiting for a whole year to come back and see these guys win the cups that got away last year, and this year they just keep coming.
“It’s good for the boys to see my progress but to see this keeps me going. This is what I flew halfway around the world for. It’s been an emotional day.”
Ballard is making huge strides with his rehabilitation and refused to rule out one day putting on the Quins jersey again, although for now he’s simply concentrating on getting back on his feet.
He said: “Rehab is going well. I’m ahead of schedule and I’m trying to set records, but trying to not get in trouble at the same time.
“I hope to come back and play rugby in some capacity, whether it’s coaching, running around or refereeing, but I’ll definitely be back in some capacity.”
Two-try hero Bolger said: “It feels great. After last year it’s good to finally win it. That was my first time last year so to get back here again and win is great.
Matt Hawley, playing in his first season with Quins, added: “We’ve been playing for Mike and the whole of Abu Dhabi today.
“It’s a great feeling to have him with us. I didn’t know him before as I’ve only just joined the club this season but I know all about him and everything everyone has said about him, he’s lived up to it.”
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The UAE Rugby Federation has now “set the precedent” for aspiring young Emirati players after the HSBC UAE National Schoolboys final at the Dubai Rugby Sevens was televised and played on the main pitch for the first time.
UAE RF secretary general Qais Al Dhalai said after Al Maarif’s last gasp 19-15 win over Al Ain Mixed Schools yesterday that future finals will now be played at 7he Sevens Stadium and therefore feature on television.
In an impressively entertaining final, Al Maarif, from Dubai, scored a try in the last minute to snatch victory over the reigning champions.
Rising Emirati talent Yousif Lashkari, who is taking giant strides with the UAE national sevens team, clinched an epic win with a try in the last few seconds, which was converted to give Al Maarif a memorable victory.
Lashkari, 18, was named Young Emirati Player of the Year earlier this year, and his scored added to tries from Jamal Ahmed and Ahmed Maktoum.
Al Maarif’s win was played out in front of 40,000 spectators.
Al Dhalai said: “We have now set the precedent. Next year every Emirati player will have the motivation to be on pitch one.
“This is what we have been working with World Rugby for, because the schedule is very tight, but they want to support us and they gave us the opportunity to play on pitch one this year and it will always be like this now, it will never change.
“The final of the school’s tournament will always be on pitch one.”
All eight schools that competed in the tournament are part of the UAE Rugby Player Pathway Programme, launched in partnership with HSBC in 2012 to promote the sport of rugby to young Emiratis.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins win Dubai Rugby Sevens final for hero Mike Ballard