Chris Jones-Griffiths began the season enjoying the relatively sedate environment of Gulf veterans rugby. He ended it by extending his status as the UAE’s most-capped rugby international ever, at the age of 38.
The North Walian retired from top-tier UAE rugby following his adopted nation’s Asia Rugby Championship Division I campaign in Malaysia two years ago – also claiming he would step away from first-team rugby at Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who he has now been with for over a decade.
But, he answered the call to come out of semi-retirement in 2017/18 and, in 2018/19, discovered walking away from the game he loves wasn’t so easy as he thought.
He came out of retirement – temporarily – yet again, but instead played a whole season. It paid dividends as Quins returned to prominence, lifting the UAE Premiership to close out the domestic season – beating Jebel Ali Dragons 37-27. Then, he got the call to join Apollo Perelini’s UAE squad for the ARC Division II campaign in Thailand.
Jones-Griffiths scored in the 82-7 rout of Guam before also starting against the host nation in Hua Hin on Saturday as the UAE earned another handsome win to earn promotion.
Jones-Griffiths extended his own record of UAE caps to 27, but says this is now the final chapter in his storied rugby career. We’re heard that before though, haven’t we?
“I’m so happy to be involved with a great bunch of lads that has set the foundations for future success for UAE rugby,” said the prop, who first earned international recognition for his adopted nation in 2011 when he attended trials and made Bruce Birtwistle’s Asian Five Nations squad.
“For myself I just wish I was 10 years younger as this is a special group of players. Unfortunately for me, my time has come to an end and I can look back on my time with pride at what I’ve achieved. I’m sure, given the talent in the squad, they can go on and be successful in Division I.”
Twenty seven caps, three tries and two yellow cards during eight years pulling on the falcon-emblazoned green, white, red and black jersey. Jones-Griffiths may not have enjoyed such a richly random international career in the Middle East had he been honest with selectors back in 2011.
A career back-row forward, he lied and told coaches at those trials he was a prop as he thought he had a better shot at making the squad in the front row.
He worked hard to adapt his game and thrived, becoming a mobile, ball-carrying front row. ‘Mr Versatility’ has since gone on to slot in consistent performances, even reliable enough to come in and hold down a starting spot at Quins this season approaching his 40s, putting his hand up when perhaps others would have stayed at home on the sofa.
“I did a favour for Mike (McFarlane, Quins head coach who departed midway through the season) as he said he had some front row cover coming in,” said Griffiths.
“It didn’t happen and I ended up playing the full season. My body felt good and felt I was told I was well enough so I made myself available (for the UAE).”
He was Perelini’s first pick for the Guam and Thailand games in two easy wins. After crushing Guam in their semi-final clash on Wednesday, they sauntered to a 50-12 triumph over Thailand on Saturday, clambering back into Division I after they were relegated a year ago when the UAE Rugby Federation decided not to send a team to the 2018 ARC.
The UAE were home and dry by half-time as they led 45-0. Thailand responded, winning the second half 12-7, but the job had been done in the first 40 minutes by arguably the strongest UAE side in the nation’s fledgling existence.
“It was a great game,” added Jones-Griffiths. “We stuck to our structures and backed our game plan. It was difficult to approach the second half given the lead we built but we played in the right areas and got over the line.”
So, has the final page of this riveting read really been turned? Stay tuned.
The UAE emphatically sealed a return to the second tier of Asia Rugby after they trounced hosts Thailand 50-12 in Hua Hin.
After a monstrous 82-7 win in their play-off with Guam on Wednesday, Apollo Perelini’s side stormed into a 45-0 half-time lead over the Asia Rugby Championship Division II tournament hosts.
Thailand made a fist of things after the break – outscoring Perelini’s men 12-5 – but the visitors were in cruise control and earned promotion back to Division I, which they had been relegated from after deciding not to participate in the ARC in 2018.
Contests between these two have been close in recent years across various formats of the game, but the UAE are a formidable beast these days as more and more expatriate talents become eligible for residency.
Two of them barrelled over for a brace of tries to put the UAE 26-0 ahead after half an hour. Dubai Exiles lock Stephen Ferguson drove over after three minutes to set the tone.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ Fijian centre Kinivilame Natuna then crashed over after a possible intercept on their own tryline was turned over by the UAE. The former Al Ain Amblers man went over again following good work from Jebel Ali Dragons’ utility back Matt Richards and the Thailand scrum was then totally manhandled as the UAE forced another turnover which led to Ferguson’s second try.
Richards then turned the screw as he finished off excellent work from Matt Mills who trundled through the Thai midfield, Richards was on the shoulder to finish it off.
It was turning into a rout and an unkind bounce off their own lineout allowed Jaen Botes to rumble through for a score out wide to follow up his hat-trick from the Guam game. And there was time for a seventh score on the stroke of half-time, Richards going over for his second.
It was a case of job done in the second half as the UAE took their foot off the gas, although Thailand also deserve credit for digging in.
They hit back nine minutes after the break with a converted score to make it 45-7. The UAE hit right back when Luke Stevenson – who’d put in a masterful display from the tee with five of his side’s first half tries converted, some from out wide – was teed up for an easy score by Daniel Perry.
Thailand scored a second, and the game’s final, try from a lineout. The UAE had the last word, however, hoisting the Division II title aloft to crown their return to the continental stage in style.
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