The UAE will aim to make up for lost time on Wednesday when they take on Guam in their Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) Division II play-off.
The men from the Emirates are trying to bounce back into the second tier of continental rugby after a decision from the UAE Rugby Federation 12 months ago which saw Apollo Perelini’s side pull out of their traditional annual trip to take on the best international sides in Asia.
Having finished bottom yet putting in spirited displays during a competitive ARC Division I campaign in 2017, the UAE’s players’ only action in 2018 was a friendly in Dubai against a touring Gibraltar side – dampening hopes of another crack at the continent.
Now, they are back and will be heavy favourites to swat aside minnows Guam at the True Arena in Hua Hin and set up a final showdown with either host nation Thailand or Kazakhstan on Saturday.
But Dubai Exiles lock Stephen Ferguson insists no-one will be underestimating their opponents – who are actually a place above them (69th) in World Rugby’s rankings.
“Making the final is the least everyone expects, 100 per cent, our mindset is that we want to be in Division 1,” said the Northern Irishman, who will win his first UAE cap should he feature from the bench.
“But we are not underestimating anyone. We have a job to do and will go out and give it everything. Some boys are playing their first game at international level while others like Chris Jones-Griffiths is on 25 caps, so there’s a real mix of characters, and we’re going out to smash it together.”
The UAE players will be even more desperate to get onto the field, having missed out on the action a year ago when it was felt Perelini had assembled the most potent squad in the nation’s fledgling history.
Joining Ferguson as new members this year are the likes of clubmate Ed Armitage, Jebel Ali Dragons full-back Matt Richards and livewire Abu Dhabi Harlequins winger Barry Dwyer, who will line up at scrum-half.
And Ferguson added: “We just all got our jerseys at a presentation. We’re all absolutely buzzing and cannot wait.
“Thailand has been amazing. Real bonding happening between the lads, making us a band of brothers. We’re going to go out and fight for each other tomorrow and get into the final on Saturday.”
Forwards: Chris Jones-Griffiths, Gio Fourie, Craig Nutt, Daniel Perry, Isaac Porter, Matt Mills, Hamish Anderson, Jaen Botes
Backs: Barry Dwyer, Luke Stevenson (capt), Sean Carey, Andrew Powell, Sakiusa Naisau, Thinus Steyn, Matthew Richards
Replacements: Lukas Waddington, Murray Reason, Ahmed Moosa, Stephen Ferguson, Sean Stevens, Edward Armitage, Kini Natuna, Majid Al Balooshi
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.