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.
“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.”
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)
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)
Know more about Sport360 Application