A group of rugby-loving teenagers from Dubai made history by becoming the first international school to reach a final at the prestigious Rosslyn Park National Schools 7s last month.
Jumeirah English Speaking School’s Under-14 boys side achieved what is believed to be a first for the world-renowned tournament – which has been held since 1939.
That year, 16 schools competed. It has since evolved into the world’s largest rugby tournament with over 9,000 boys and girls aged 13-19 from over 800 schools descending annually on the London-based club.
It was a fairytale run for the band of expatriate players and, even though it was not to have the happiest of endings – they were defeated 35-14 in the final by Harrow School – coach Mike Wernham hailed the youngsters for putting “UAE rugby on the map”.
“I remember as a boy, playing at Rosslyn Park 7s for three consecutive years and thought I had an idea of how big the competition was, and the best that the teams did that I was part of was to make the semi-finals,” said the Englishman, who attended renowned rugby school Sedbergh – three-time winners of the main NS7 Open title at Rosslyn Park.
“This U14 JESS team in their very first attempt beat some incredibly strong schools and became the first ever international school to make a final at the competition which is a remarkable effort.
“It still is incredibly difficult to describe how proud I am of their efforts and I know for the players themselves the result has still not sunk in.
We are so proud of our @JESSSportDept Rugby U14 team who made history recently and put UAE rugby on the world map after finishing runners-up in the worlds largest school rugby tournament - the Rosslyn Park 7’s @RPNS7. #rpn7s— JESS Dubai 🇦🇪 (@JESSDubai) 21 April 2019
Full press-release below:https://t.co/aLEojiGw63 pic.twitter.com/AvnnkJ2Q8D
“There are some misinformed opinions about rugby in this part of the world when it comes to standard of play and I think these young men have certainly put UAE rugby on the map in the biggest schoolboy rugby competition in the world.”
That’s not an overstatement. Originally a tournament played among English public schools, the tournament has evolved and expanded over the years and now accepts not only sides from the rest of the UK, but also from all over the world, including Canada, China, India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, as well as various European countries.
JESS eased thorough as winners of Group D with wins over England’s Hampton School (24-19) and Scottish side Dollar Academy (31-10), drawing 24-24 with Welsh side Brynteg.
In the first elimination round they disposed of Malvern College 26-15 but then lost their second group stage opener 29-14 to Whitgift School. They qualified for the knockout stages by hammering Epsom College 50-0 and from there the dream continued. York’s St Peter’s School were narrowly beaten 28-24 in the quarter-final before Rodillian Academy were put to the sword 31-7 in the semis to set up a grand finale with Harrow.
It wasn’t to be in the end, but it is an epic feat for this squad of 12 players, led by skipper Tom Burton.
“It has been an incredible achievement not just for the team but for the school,” added Wernham.
“We have invested an awful lot of time, money and resources into Sport at JESS, particularly in the last three years and this is certainly one of our star stories that will be spoken about for a long time to come.
“I remember saying during my interview six years ago that my long-term goal would be to have competitive teams looking to go on big sports tours and if we were at the level then perhaps look at entering Rosslyn Park 7s. It was absolutely not in my head to almost win the thing.
“The powers that be supported the idea fully and the group of players involved latched onto it and worked their socks off.
“There have been some sacrifices along the way, this has been a two-year process, but for all parties involved the effort and sacrifices were certainly worth it when you look at the final results.”
Really proud of @JESSDubai U14’s rugby team finishing 2nd out of around 180 teams in their category at @RPNS7 this weekend. Proving we can develop them away from their home countries. Well done to our 9 academy boys on show. #SkillsMatter pic.twitter.com/fV7k9elA4k— Apollo Perelini (@Apollo11Rugby) 30 March 2019
Wernham admitted that a special task required special training – with the coaches reverting to some rather odd techniques in order to prepare the boys for what were expected to be very different playing conditions to what they’re used to in sunny Dubai.
Wernham went on: “The boys were a very close knit group already, however, having some specific time together beforehand just brought the team together even more with some of the challenges we set them.
“We trained at Ski Dubai, completely soaked the school field, covered the balls in washing up liquid and had the boys playing 7s at 10s competitions hoping to turn over every stone possible in terms of being prepared for this competition.
“As luck would have it we had nothing but blue skies, dry pitches and fairly warm weather so the team felt like they were right at home.
“Having said that, beating schools such as Hampton, St Peters York and Epsom College just to name a few is a ridiculous feat.
“They did JESS and UAE rugby a huge service and it’s something we all as part of expat rugby can be incredibly proud of.
“This is just the start for JESS with this tournament, we will now be going to Rosslyn Park every year at this age group and for this team specifically they will be back again in two years’ time hoping to go one better as U16s.”
JESS squad: Tom Burton (capt), Labeeb Iqbal, Dexter Wigand, Tom Battiston, Kai Inker, Jordan Bell, John Barnes, Rob Everett, Scott Edmonds, Ben Youlden-Cole, Seb Williams-Parry, Walid Nsouli
Reigning champions Speranza22 will return to defend their Bournemouth 7s title next month.
The tournament, being held from May 24-26, was one of four trophies won in 2018 for the team established in 2013 in memory of former Abu Dhabi Harlequins player Marco Speranza, who was killed aged just 20 in a plane crash in his native Argentina in February of that year.
The team aims to keep Speranza’s legacy alive by ensuring they play good rugby while raising awareness and money for various good causes. To date, they have raised more than £20,000 for organisations including Try Rugby, set up to allow children with additional needs to learn through rugby, as well as current charity CCELA, an orphanage in Ethiopia.
They have also previously supported Mike Ballard, another Quins player who suffered a serious spinal injury in 2014 which has left him in a wheelchair. Ballard is trying out for the USA Para Olympic kayaking team as he targets the 2020 Paralympic Games.
Speranza spent much of his life in Abu Dhabi, where his father worked. He started playing rugby at 15 with Quins and it soon became apparent that he had a natural talent for the game. In 2009 he was part of an exceptional Quins U19 side that went on to win the Dubai Sevens U19 competition.
He stayed in Abu Dhabi after school for two seasons playing for the Quins senior side before returning home to start his training to become a commercial pilot when tragedy struck.
Since being set up it’s been a rapid rise to success for Speranza22 whose maiden tournament was at the 2013 Dubai Sevens International Open, where all of Speranza’s team-mates from the victorious 2009 Quins Gulf U18 side came together in memory of their team-mate.
The name was formed by using his surname and his date of birth, September 22 (22 was also the number he chose on his shirt in 2009). In that first year (2013) they reached the semi-final and Speranza22 was formed.
Since then, Speranza22 have a unique selection criteria in that they only select players who knew Speranza or someone who has previously played for Speranza22. To date they have had 72 players represent Speranza22 from countries including Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, Germany, Jamaica, Ireland, New Zealand, Romania, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, Tonga and the US, all whom are linked back to the man the team is named after.
In 2018, they decided to have a go at the UK and Ireland circuit to see how they would measure up against some of the best invitational and club sevens teams. The Bournemouth 7s Festival was top of their priority and they added another trophy to their cabinet as they claimed the Men’s Elite Cup.
Since 2013 they have achieved the following: 2013 Dubai Sevens International Open – Cup semi-finalists; 2014 Dubai Sevens International Open – Cup finalists; 2015 Dubai Sevens International Open – Cup quarter-finalists; 2017 Dubai Sevens International Invitational – Cup winners; 2017 Dubai Sevens International Open – Plate winners; 2018 Kinsale 7s Elite Men – Cup finalists; 2018 Bournemouth 7s Elite Men – Cup winners; 2018 Chester 7s Elite Men – Cup finalists; 2018 London Summer Social Elite Men – Plate winners; 2018 Dubai Sevens International Invitational – Cup quarter-finalists; 2018 Dubai 7s International Open – Cup winners.
In 2019 they were invited to be part of the UK Super 7s series. This is huge for Speranza22 as they have always wanted to test themselves regularly against the best and, for a relatively new side, to be asked to join the best sevens sides in the country based on recent results is a testament to how far they have come in such a short time.
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)