Simon Williams insists he will take many wonderful memories away with him following a challenging, tragic but ultimately rewarding three-year tenure as RAK Rugby chairman.
Predecessor Mike Silvester had been something of a one-man band in heroically keeping the historically nomadic club afloat in the three years since reforming in 2013.
At that point there had been no official club in the Emirate for seven years, even though it had been initially formed as RAK Goats in 1982. Meanwhile, the roots of the club can be traced back half a century, with rugby having been played in the northern region in some guise since the first expatriate oil and port workers arrived.
While Silvester scrambled to keep the club in business after initially re-forming, RAK Rugby has exploded as both a business and club in the last three years – during which it has firmly established itself as a fixture on the UAE rugby scene.
The club has since gone on to form its own women’s team, moved from its iconic sand pitch to a grass one for the first time, while there has been recognition in the form of awards from the UAE Rugby Federation as well as being named Yalla Rugby’s Club of the Year this season.
“There were many changes we had to force onto ourselves such as the name change from the Goats to RAK Rugby and setting the club up under royal decree from His Highness Sheikh Saud (bin Saqr Al Qasimi), the ruler of RAK,” said Englishman Williams, who announced at the start of the 2018/19 campaign that he would step down at its conclusion due to added work commitments.
“Meeting him, presenting our plans and getting his endorsement was a key moment in the club’s development. We then put structure into the organisation with responsibilities on committee members, which allowed the players to focus on playing.
“Last season we moved to playing on grass and the changes we’d put in attracted a serious coach with Craig Chapman, as well as new players. This reflected in our results with wins at the Dubai Sevens, Barrelhouse tournament, the inaugural Nick Young Trophy v the Arabian Knights, as well as fourth place in the Community League.
“Mike Silvester, the previous chairman, had sown the seeds and we have had some on-field success but now we were beating teams we’d never beaten before and achieved respect across the leagues, resulting in the Yalla Rugby Club of the Year award.
“We also started our women’s team and they had their first wins.
“This season saw RAK Rugby continue the success with the men hitting our highest league position at third, our vets winning at the Dubai Sevens and the men and ladies both making it into the trophy part of the tournament for the first time, the men narrowly losing in the final.
“The women have particularly come on massively this year, even attracting an ex-England sevens player, winning C league tournaments, then several B leagues and finally cementing themselves in the A league as a force to be reckoned with.”
The ladies won the bowl final! Add 3 tournament wins, going C league to A finishing 5th.— RAK Rugby (@RAKRugby) 15 March 2019
Incredible bunch of girls, supported by coach Craig who has transformed them. Not forgetting medics & supporters. Great RAK Rugby team work, can't wait for the awards night #RAKRugby pic.twitter.com/KlllGH8DOM
No replacement has been named yet, with Williams explaining that a successor will be voted in at the club’s AGM, to be ratified by Sheikh Saud, this summer.
“I announced to the club I wouldn’t be standing as chairman at the beginning of the season,” added the Cambridgeshire native.
“I moved to Dubai then and a new job just didn’t give me the time and now comes the time for me to retire.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed the three years in charge and will take away many wonderful memories. I’m particularly proud of what we have achieved as the club has transitioned into a proper functioning business, as we needed to both legally and commercially.”
Amidst the many highlights and progress, the lowest point for the club during recent times has been the death of former player Nick Young, who died days after a tackle during a game at the Sharjah 10s tournament at the end of the 2017/18 season.
Williams added: “There have been difficult times as well, the death of Nick in particular was an awful time but it’s been great to see how his name will be honoured forever and that we continue to raise funds for his wife and boys, who will be having a well-deserved holiday with the recent funds raised.”
Reflecting on happier times, Williams recounts how lucky he has been to oversee such a momentous period for a club he only came to be involved with via a chance encounter, having seen a set of rugby posts jutting out of the sand pitch at their previous home at Bin Majid Resort while driving past one day.
“There are so many good memories I will take away,” he added.
“Playing away at Al Ain in the 2016/17 season and winning our first match there with just 15 men and enjoying a now legendary bus journey home.
“Coaching and developing two youth teams and seeing the kids and parents beaming with delight at our first match v Dubai Hurricanes, and going crazy when we beat Dubai Eagles.
“Helping start the women’s team and watching them play their first tournament when we only had five girls and they managed to win one game against seven.
“Managing our vets at last year’s Dubai Sevens, where we won the Bowl and a bunch of us old guys were all jumping around like kids at the final whistle.
“Of course, I couldn’t have enjoyed or done any of the above without a fantastic team of committee members, sponsors, players and volunteers around me. It truly has been an honour and privilege to be chairman at RAK and I look forward to watching them play as a spectator now.”
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