Stephen Ferguson and Jaen Botes excited to be part of Apollo Perelini's UAE squad

Matt Jones - Editor 21:13 03/04/2019
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Jaen Botes (r) is back in the UAE fold.

Players selected in UAE national team coach Apollo Perelini’s training squad ahead of the nation’s coveted return to elite international stage of Asian rugby are “buzzing” and “thankful” for their opportunities.

Perelini has selected a 27-man training squad – likely to be whittled down to around 23 – as the UAE prepare to return to the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) after a dismal 2018 in which the game’s governing body in the Emirates, the UAE Rugby Federation, pulled the national team out of the competition, without an explanation.

But Perelini and Co are back for the 2019 ARC and will compete in Division II, facing minnows Guam in a play-off game in Thailand next month, with the winners going on to face either the hosts or Kazakhstan three days later in the final, and a chance to earn promotion to Division I.

Perelini has selected arguably the strongest UAE side in recent memory as more and more top quality players plying their trade in the West Asia Premiership and beyond become eligible under UAE residency rules.

One new addition is rampaging Dubai Exiles lock Stephen Ferguson – who captained the UAE Barbarians last year in a hastily arranged set of friendlies against touring Gibraltar after the UAE RF’s surprising decision.

“I’m absolutely over the moon. I was buzzing when I found out,” said the Northern Irishman on finding out he had made the squad.

Stephen Ferguson (c) can't wait to hopefully be part of of a UAE Test squad.

Stephen Ferguson (c) can’t wait to hopefully be part of of a UAE Test squad.

“I’m just excited to be involved and hopefully I can help the boys do better than the last time they went away.”

It had been a chastening experience for the UAE the last time they featured in the ARC. In Malaysia in 2017, they lost all three Division I games to the host nation, as well as the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

They escaped relegation though and Perelini and his players had been keen to return to the second tier competition – below the ARC’s Tri Nations division featuring South Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia – only to be disappointed.

Ferguson added: “It’s great to be back in the championship, as its gives the boys that little bit more to play for when coming up against boys from other teams vying for your spot on the national team.

“I captained the Baa Baas last year so this is my first taste of senior international UAE rugby, which is why I’m so excited.”

The players took part in their first training session on Monday and will train regularly over the next few weeks at The Sevens and in Jebel Ali before they depart for the tournament on May 12.

The UAE face Guam at Bangkok’s Bang Bon Sport Center on May 15, with the final three days later on May 18.

The UAE set-up is something Ferguson’s Exiles colleague Jaen Botes has previously experienced. But, after last year’s debacle, it is not something he has been taking for granted.

“I’m just thankful and glad to be given another opportunity to represent the UAE, I have come a long way this season with injury and stuff so I’m glad to see the hard work paying off,” said the hulking South African Number 8.

“It’s a very strong side and I’m excited to see what we can achieve. It’s always exciting to play under Apollo’s coaching and to represent the UAE. There’s lots of hard work ahead for everyone until we depart for Thailand.

“It will be great to train with all the boys you play against in the season. Excited is an understatement. I’m on holiday (at the moment) and won’t be back until Sunday so I missed the first session.”

UAE SQUAD

BACKS

Emosi Ratuvecanaua, Luke Stevenson, Kini Natuna (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Andrew Powell, Sakiusa Naisau (both Dubai Hurricanes), Niko Volavola, Matthew Richards (both Jebel Ali Dragons); Thinus Steyn, Edward Armitage (both Dubai Exiles), Sean Carey (Dubai Eagles); Majid Al Balooshi, Mohamed Suleiman (both Dubai Shaheen)

FORWARDS

Chris Jones-Griffiths, Craig Nutt, Murray Reason, Esekaia Dranibota, Sean Stevens (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Lucas Waddington, Gio Fourie, Matt Mills, Jaen Botes, Stephen Ferguson (all Dubai Exiles); Daniel Perry (Jebel Ali Dragons); Isaac Porter, Mohamed Hassan (both Dubai Eagles); Hamish Anderson (Dubai Hurricanes); Ahmed Moosa (Dubai Shaheen)

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UAE to return to Asia Rugby Championship as Apollo Perelini picks strong training squad

Matt Jones - Editor 18:54 03/04/2019
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Niko Volavola (l) is part of the UAE squad for Thailand.

UAE national team coach Apollo Perelini has selected arguably the strongest UAE side in recent memory as his side return to the Asia Rugby Championship next month.

Perelini and Co will surely hope to make up for lost time when they take on Guam in Thailand on May 15, as the UAE look to plot a path back into the ARC’s Division I after they withdrew from the competition a year ago.

The UAE Rugby Federation – for still unconfirmed reasons – withdrew the 15s team from the 2018 ARC, leaving the nation to play a glorified friendly against lowly Gibraltar.

During their 2017 Division I campaign in Malaysia, the UAE finished bottom of the table in Ipoh after defeats to the host nation, as well as the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

The UAE were spared relegation though and players and coaches had been looking forward to putting in an improved showing last year, only to be told of the news the UAE RF would not be sending a team to the tournament – which was instead played between two teams, the Philippines and Singapore, as a two-legged tie.

Those two sides will now compete in Division I, alongside Sri Lanka and Chinese Taipei, who were crowned Division II champions. The UAE will be heavily fancied to beat minnows Guam at the Bang Bon Sport Center in Bangkok, with the winners set to take on either Thailand or Kazakhstan in the final on May 18.

Apollo Perelini has named a strong UAE squad.

Apollo Perelini has named a strong UAE squad.

Instead of competing in the ARC, the UAE instead played Gibraltar in an unofficial Test match last April, winning 28-15.

Perelini has announced a 27-man training squad for the tournament which is likely to be whittled down ahead of the nation’s departure for Thailand on May 12. Training sessions will take place over the coming weeks.

UAE SQUAD

BACKS

Emosi Ratuvecanaua, Luke Stevenson, Kini Natuna (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Andrew Powell, Sakiusa Naisau (both Dubai Hurricanes), Niko Volavola, Matthew Richards (both Jebel Ali Dragons); Thinus Steyn, Edward Armitage (both Dubai Exiles), Sean Carey (Dubai Eagles); Majid Al Balooshi, Mohamed Suleiman (both Dubai Shaheen)

FORWARDS

Chris Jones-Griffiths, Craig Nutt, Murray Reason, Esekaia Dranibota, Sean Stevens (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Lucas Waddington, Gio Fourie, Matt Mills, Jaen Botes, Stephen Ferguson (all Dubai Exiles); Daniel Perry (Jebel Ali Dragons); Isaac Porter, Mohamed Hassan (both Dubai Eagles); Hamish Anderson (Dubai Hurricanes); Ahmed Moosa (Dubai Shaheen)

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Abu Dhabi Harlequins end season on high, beating Jebel Ali Dragons to lift UAE Premiership

Matt Jones - Editor 15:38 31/03/2019
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Harlequins finished a difficult season on a high.

They won an unprecedented quintuple two seasons ago, but things have rarely been easy for Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the intervening years.

And they certainly did things the hard way to salvage their season by beating old foes Jebel Ali Dragons to recapture the UAE Premiership title on Friday.

Quins edged a closely-fought contest 37-27 at The Sevens, a late converted try and penalty eventually giving them breathing space as the teams entered the final 10 minutes deadlocked at 27-27.

Both teams have endured difficulties this season – not least the fact that growing force Bahrain, West Asia Premiership champions, have been a cut above everyone.

But Quins, who saw influential coach Mike McFarlane depart at the start of the year after overseeing a period of Gulf rugby dominance, showed tremendous resilience and character to see off their old rivals.

Already with influential quartet of skipper Luke Stevenson and vice captain Craig Nutt – who jointly took dual player-coach roles after McFarlane’s departure – as well as centre Brian Geraghty and UAE prop Murray Reason unavailable for the game, Quins lost forwards Sean Stevens and Semisi Seruitoana to injury in the opening 20 minutes.

Bizarrely, starting centre Kobus Cronje then had to depart at half-time due to a pre-booked holiday with his partner, meaning he would have missed his flight had he stayed for the full 80 minutes. For those reasons alone, victory was well deserved.

Quins won a tight game 37-27.

Quins won a tight game 37-27.

“It is absolute credit to the determination of all involved that the team held firm against a very strong Dragons side to grind out a hard-fought win,” said Rory Green, long-term assistant coach to McFarlane.

“We’re delighted to get the win. We knew we would be facing a very strong Dragons side that was buoyant from a good win over Dubai Exiles.

“We were missing some key players in Luke, Craig, Brian and Murray due to work and other commitments that could not be changed, and Kobus had to leave at half-time to ensure he could make his flight from Abu Dhabi that evening.

“So our squad depth was going to be tested. In addition to the four key players unavailable we also suffered two injuries in the first 20 minutes of the game, which meant we had to use our strong bench earlier than we would have liked.

“It meant we started the second half with seven key first team players not on the pitch.”

Green also heaped praise on stand-in captain Chris Jones-Griffiths, the Welshman had finally brought the curtain down on a near decade-long senior career with Quins two seasons ago, insisting he was only going to play vets rugby.

He came out of semi-retirement last season to answer a Quins injury crisis though and again put his hand up for the final.

“That (team ethos) is of course down to hard work but also, more importantly, down to the bond and friendships that have been formed in what is an incredibly close nit group of players, coaches and management,” added Greene.

“They literally put bodies on the line, epitomised no more than our match-day skipper Chris Jones-Griffiths who is technically a ‘vet’ but probably had the most carries and yards gained of anyone on the pitch, and his recall in to the UAE squad is richly deserved.

“We also had a graduate of our junior section, 18-year-old Cristian Smalberger (who made his debut in the semi-final win over Hurricanes), not only in the squad but adding real value when he came on which is fantastic to see.”

After leading Quins to that fabulous five-trophy haul in 2016/17, McFarlane – depleted by player departures as well as talismanic former captain Ben Bolger’s forced retirement on the eve of the 2017/18 campaign – was powerless stop the club relinquishing their grip on their major honours last year.

Exiles beat them in the UAE Premiership final and also took the Dubai Sevens crown from them, while Dragons usurped them as kings of west Asia.

“Mike McFarlane has laid a fantastic foundation at the club and since his departure Ali Thompson and Mark Challis have stepped up to see the lads through the remainder of the season,” said Greene.

“Having been the most consistent team in the UAE, having ‘lost’ just one game in the UAE Premiership regular season (a forfeit due to lack of front row availability in February) we were determined to make sure we walked away with a major trophy and to make amends for the defeat in the UAE Premiership final last season.

“A total of 43 lads have played for the first team this season and this win is for all of them, not just the match-day squad.

“Dragons should be congratulated on the part they played in what was a great advert for UAE rugby and on another day they could easily have come out on top, but we enjoyed this one.”

In the earlier final from Friday, Dubai Tigers retained their UAE Conference crown after they beat Al Ain Amblers 37-21.

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