Jaen Botes is looking forward to more “exciting times ahead” for UAE rugby as he and the nation prepare for a return to the elite Asia Rugby Sevens Series.
The UAE have been roaming the relative international wilderness of sevens rugby in recent years, having not played in the main series since 2015. In the ensuing years they’ve foraged in the Development Sevens Series and the Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy – lifting that accolade last year to climb back into the main series for 2019.
Apollo Perelini’s men are the eighth and bottom seed across three legs of the series to be played during August and September, and they face the daunting task of taking on heavyweights and top seeds Japan in Pool A of the opening appointment in South Korea at the end of next month.
The UAE also face fourth seeds Sri Lanka and fifth seeds China in Incheon from August 31-September 1. But after their triumphant return to Division I in the 15-man game’s Asia Rugby Championship earlier this year, Botes admits confidence is sky high.
“It’s been a hectic year of rugby,” admitted the ferocious Dubai Exiles No.8.
“We went away to Thailand and came back as champions of Division II which gave us all a boost of motivation to achieve more. It was a great achievement for the UAE and hopefully we can achieve more.
“There are very exciting times ahead. We’ve been training every week, we all did our testing a few weeks back which gave us a platform to work off and a benchmark where we need to be for the upcoming three-leg tour over August and September as individuals as well as a team.
“We have a tough group but it’s only reasonable to challenge ourselves early on.”
The UAE were promoted to the main series for 2019 after a dominant performance in last year’s Trophy, beating hosts Singapore 14-0 in August’s final.
They had previously swatted aside their group rivals, including big wins over Indonesia (48-0), Jordan (45-5) and Nepal (36-5), scoring 129 points and conceding just 10. They beat Thailand 26-0 in the semis before overcoming the hosts at Queenstown Stadium.
Hong Kong, the Philippines, South Korea and Chinese Taipei make up Pool B in the opening leg of the series.
“After a few weeks off a number of us received the invitation from AP to be in the sevens training squad,” added the South African, who spent part of his youth career with Welsh provincial sides Cardiff Blues and Scarlets.
“At first I was shocked as there is a lot of talent to pick from, however, I have taken on the challenge to better myself and train hard to be at the level expected from me.
“We have a great team behind us and the mood in camp is great, everyone is challenging themselves and each week the atmosphere is getting better.”
Botes is not everyone’s cup of tea back home on the domestic circuit. Warm and engaging off the field, he is a nightmare on it. A hulking and imposing physical presence, he chats non-stop and has a habit of winding up the opposition, as well as walking a tight rope with referees.
But he must be commended on his fitness regime. For a big man he has never had any problems getting across the field and, despite not possessing the figure of a traditional sevens player, has long been part of the UAE set-up in both the long and shortened format.
But he admits he has made changes this year in a bid to maintain and improve his fitness and stay part of Perelini’s sevens plans. He has teamed up with Fuel-Up by Kcal – the first meal prep company in the UAE dedicated to athletes and the seriously ambitious.
#UAERF 7's team now undergoing testing for @asiarugby #ARSS Series Tournament, all the best of luck! 🏆🇦🇪🏉— UAE Rugby Federation (@uaerugby) June 18, 2019
Thanks to @DESCDubai for hosting our testing session! #MyRugbyMoment #RugbyBuildsCharacter #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/NVXo8YhlsZ
The 6’ 4” man mountain is maybe more of a hill these days, now weighing 114kg having lost 3kg of body fat during his first cycle with Kcal and gaining 800g of muscle mass.
“With sevens, it is ideal to be far lighter than when you’re playing in 15s rugby, especially for me,” joked Botes, who is currently on his second cycle as he looks to hone his abilities in order to be in peak condition for the UAE’s gruelling schedule ahead.
“The game of sevens, from my perspective, is all about mental strength, conditioning and skill. I have been fortunate enough to have Fuel-Up (Kcal) looking after me and my nutrition in the preparation for the upcoming tour.
“Nutrition is extremely important during this stage as it helps promote my performance during training sessions, my recovery and prevent any injuries.
“It is essential to have a very strong nutrition base so that it makes it easier to push myself to a different level as we look to compete against Asia’s best.”
Botes has noticed the benefit of teaming up with Kcal and is advising fellow athletes to do the same.
“I have been in and out of Fuel-Up office the last couple of weeks dealing with the nutritionist in tracking my daily macros and helping me drop my weight to a reasonable level, and I must say they have been extremely helpful with it all,” said the former Abu Dhabi Saracens man.
“Their expertise has taught me various things about nutrition and I’m grateful to have the support.
“I would strongly recommend any athlete in the UAE to do the same as the extreme conditions we train and play in here does have a role to play on our performance and having the right nutrition base will only promote your abilities.
“I have noticed a dramatic change in my recovery and performance during my training and it is all thanks to Fuel-Up and the Kcal team.”
It may appear to be casual, amateur, community rugby, but Andy Cole revealed a painstaking scouring of the globe was undertaken in order to find Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ new director of rugby.
The club had contact with coaches in the United States, Argentina and even New Zealand before finding a permanent replacement for Mike McFarlane, who left midway through last season and was replaced as senior men’s coach by players Craig Nutt and Luke Stevenson as well as Rory Greene on a temporary basis.
Niall Lear is the man tasked with replacing McFarlane full time, with the former Connacht A, Scottish Schools and Scotland Under-18 international throwing himself into his new role just hours after landing in the UAE.
Lear took his first coaching session at Zayed Sports City on Tuesday evening, roughly 12 hours after landing in the UAE capital to start his new life with his young family.
And despite – to the casual observer – the idea that UAE rugby is just a handful of happy-go-lucky expats playing outside of work hours, Quins chairman Cole described the recruitment process as “a nightmare”.
“We’re delighted we’ve got Niall over,” said Cole.
“It’s been a nightmare trying to find someone, it really has. I’ve been interviewing people in the US, Argentina, New Zealand, all over the place.
“It wasn’t easy to find someone to fit in doing the seniors and the juniors, that’s been the challenge. You can find someone good at one or the other, but not able to do both. It’s quite a big ask when you’ve got close to 800 playing members. It’s a big challenge.
“But this guy has got a good pedigree of rugby and has worked in good sporting schools and military schools.
“He’s got that ability to work with kids and he’s got a young family too, his wife has just given birth. For them it’s a long term plan so it will be good for them too. I’m sure he’ll fit in well, he’s got a great personality.”
Previously based in Edinburgh, Lear was house master and rugby coach for the city’s internationally renowned Merchiston Castle School – current Scotland international Fraser Brown is a former pupil.
Lear spent three years there and was previously in the same role at the Queen Victoria Military School in Dunblane.
Lear’s playing achievements include representing Connacht A from 2008- 09. He attended Loughborough University and represented Scottish Schools, Scotland U18s and was part of the Scotland Sevens training squad in 2006/07.
He also represented Rosslyn Park, Glasgow Hawks as well as the Scottish Schools athletics and the Team GB U23 athletics team.
“We’re delighted he’s here,” added Cole, who admits running a club and keeping it thriving in the UAE is a massive challenge each year, especially over the summer.
“We wish him all the best and we’ll look to carry on developing rugby across all age groups – that’s the main aim. And we hope to develop coaches as well as players.
“When you’ve got all these transient people coming and going we’re having to develop new coaches all the time as well as players. It’s not easy out here in the Middle East. People at your home club are always on call but people come and go here so it’s a new challenge every year.”
They may have lost their influential coach but ambitions remain “exactly the same” for Bahrain next season – they are targeting West Asia Premiership glory, and even Dubai Sevens success too.
Welshman Louie Tonkin revitalised the sleepy west Asia nation during his three-year tenure, leading them to the West Asia Premiership title last season – a third trophy in as many years.
And even though he has since departed – taking up a position within Gallagher Premiership side Exeter Chiefs’ academy – it does not mean it is back to the drawing board for Bahrain, according to new assistant and forwards coach Lindsey Gibson.
“Our aim for the season has got to be exactly the same. I don’t care what team you are, you go into the season with the ambition of wanting to win, and that doesn’t change,” said the influential Scotsman, who has been a key part of the playing staff under Tonkin.
The 29-year-old hooker, who will assist another influential player in Adam Wallace, who replaces Tonkin as head coach, knows rivals will see the departure of the Welshman as a sign Bahrain are weakened. But after ascending to the top spot in west Asia, he says the club have no plans to relinquish it.
He added: “If you fall short of achieving that then you pick out the successes you’ve had along the way. We’ve had good progress over the last few years and now we’re in the position where everyone wants to take us off the top of the league.
“(Dubai) Exiles pushed us really close (Bahrain beat them 23-21 in the WAP play-off final) and (Jebel Ali) Dragons and (Abu Dhabi) Quins are never far away. And you know the new team coming into the league (UAE Conference champions Dubai Tigers) will be competitive as well.
“We’ll aim to win the league and the play-offs again, that has to be the aim. We wouldn’t mind a bit of success at the Dubai Sevens too. I’d like to see the boys get to the final.”
Gibson and Wallace are both long-time Bahrain players and have learned under Tonkin since he arrived and transformed the club in the summer of 2016. And Gibson admits the duo will not rip apart the structures Tonkin put in place, while also bringing their own ideas to the table.
“We’re both excited about what we can bring that’s slightly different,” he added.
“We’re not going to go with the exact same playbook although we’re not going to rip it up and start again either.
“Louie has been massive for us and we’ve learnt a massive amount off him over the last three years, me in-particular as I work in the office with him on a day to day basis, so I’ve picked his brains over that time because he’s such a smart coach.
“You could always tell he’d go on to make that next step. As with anyone who gets into coaching though you’ve always got your own ideas and things you want to try so we’ll look to make slight changes and, if they work, happy days. If they don’t, you live and learn.”
In addition to Wallace and Gibson, Tom Hanratty will continue in his role as the team manager while Alana McConalogue comes on board as strength and conditioning coach.
It is a role Gibson is now relishing ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, but he admits he wasn’t keen at all when Tonkin first suggested the idea.
“To be honest I wasn’t too happy with the idea when it was first put to me, in fact I flat out refused when Louie suggested it,” said Gibson.
“’No chance I’m coaching yet, I’m not ready for it’. I wasn’t ready to hang up the boots yet. But he said I wouldn’t have to do that, I could take on the role Wallace has had for the last few years. Being assistant coach and captain figure.
“I’ve kind of been doing it anyway so it’s not an issue. Now, I’m quite excited to see what I can bring.
“It’s definitely the best way forward for the club I think. I took convincing because of my inexperience in coaching adult rugby, but now I’ve come round and I’m quite excited about it.
“Me and Wallace both know the squad and it’s an exciting squad of boys. Bringing someone else in could have upset them if he’s not the right candidate or the right fit.
“So it’s the best way forward. And we have a coaching team in place here now, which is something Louie pushed for. Now we have the four of us working together which will make things a lot easier.”
Bahrain’s pre-season has unofficially started, with the players remaining out running and in the gym, but Gibson says they will be back on the pitch properly the first week in August as they build towards defending their Western Clubs Champions League title in September.
They will face UAE Premiership champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Sri Lanka’s Kandy.