Isaac Porter left Sharjah Wanderers with a heavy heart nearly 12 months ago, but the loveable Irishman feels his decision has been vindicated following a call-up to the UAE squad for the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) later this month.
All-action loose forward Porter joined West Asia and UAE Premiership outfit Dubai Eagles at the end of last season – like Wanderers they have a prevalent Irish core.
And even though it’s been a season of struggle for the second-year club, they can be buoyed by the fact Porter is one of three players selected in national team coach Apollo Perelini’s 27-man training squad for the ARC.
Porter joins Sean Carey and Mohamed Hassan in the squad, which will be trimmed before flying out to Thailand on May 12, where they will take on Asia minnows Guam in Bangkok three days later in a Division II play-off for the chance to meet Thailand or Kazakhstan in the final on May 18 – the winners of that game will be promoted to Division I.
Porter is one of a number of new faces to qualify for UAE residency this year, and he is “honoured” to be part of a squad returning to continental action after a year away.
“I’m absolutely delighted to be named in the squad,” said Porter, who had been an instrumental figure for Sharjah during his formative years in the Emirates – he was key to their UAE Conference-winning season in 2015/16.
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Congrats to the 3 Eagles for making the UAE national side this year. They head to the Asia Championships in Thailand this month. Oli Johnson, Isaac Porter and Sean Carey. . . #rugby #uaerugby #asiarugby #gulfrugby #sevensrugby #dubaisportscity #rugbyunion #eaglesrugby #dsceagles #kickers
“It’s an absolute honour and privilege to get this opportunity. The talent of rugby players around the UAE is getting stronger each year, so I’m very humbled to get his opportunity.”
Porter’s departure was the catalyst for a sorry 2018 summer for Sharjah. The club – one of the Emirates’ oldest, establishing roots in the late 1970s – announced via their Twitter and Instagram accounts last September that they had taken the “tough call” to withdraw from the 2018/19 Conference with a little over a week to go until the start of the season.
The club – whose ladies team is nevertheless thriving – insisted it would remain in-tact and compete in various sevens and 10s tournaments throughout the season, and attempt to regroup and return its senior men’s team to action for 2019/20, a decision that remains to be made.
Although the UAE is a transient place, with players coming and going with regularity due to changeable work commitments, departing Sharjah was no easy choice for Porter.
He said: “I decided to join the Eagles last year, which was a very tough decision to transfer from Sharjah, to play Premiership rugby, and now to be named in the UAE squad is unbelievable.”
And he is excited about his and the UAE’s prospects, adding: “It’s great to be back in the championship, it will be an exciting challenge, and we have a very talented squad travelling this year.”
Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ cohort of Emosi Ratuvecanaua, Kini Natuna, Craig Nutt, Murray Reason, Esekaia Dranibota and Sean Stevens are all new additions to Perelini’s squad this year too, as well as Jebel Ali Dragons’ Matthew Richards and Dubai Exiles’ Thinus Steyn, Ed Armitage, Lucas Waddington, Gio Fourie and Stephen Ferguson.
Quins prop Chris Jones-Griffiths, meanwhile, the UAE’s most capped player of all time, returns to the international fold after coming out of retirement for his club this season.
Exiles director of rugby Jacques Benade joins Perelini’s coaching staff for the Thailand trip – having acted as assistant alongside former Quins chief Mike McFarlane a year ago as the UAE played Gibraltar in a friendly in Dubai.
Outgoing Bahrain supremo Louie Tonkin also joins Benade on the coaching staff before he heads back to the UK in June to take up a job with Exeter Chiefs’ academy.
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.