He will be 37 in December yet UAE national team coach Apollo Perelini clearly sees value in Matt Richards after selecting him in his UAE sevens squad that returns to the Asia Rugby Sevens Series this weekend.
The UAE have been roaming the international wilderness of sevens rugby in recent years. They have 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. They lifted the Trophy in 2018 to earn promotion back to the main series for 2019.
Perelini’s men are the eighth and bottom seed across three legs of the series, and they face a difficult task with top seeds Japan in Pool A with them at their opening appointment in Incheon, South Korea, this weekend.
The UAE also face fourth seeds Sri Lanka and fifth seeds China at the Namdong Asiad Stadium, with the tournament kicking off on Saturday and finishing on Sunday.
And Jebel Ali Dragons full-back Richards can’t wait to make his debut for his adopted nation in the shorter format of the game.
“I’m proud to be selected in the 12, especially as the depth of our squad is good (the training squad this summer as a whole is made up of around 20 players),” said Richards, who has previously played for the UAE XVs side.
“I’m glad that Apollo thinks I can transfer my skill set from the 15 format into the sevens. It’s not bad for someone who is 37 before Christmas being selected.
“I’m really looking forward to the challenge of playing sevens at the highest level. It might not be the highest competition, but you can’t get higher than this division.”
The UAE earned promotion to the main series for 2019 after a dominant performance in last year’s Trophy, beating hosts Singapore 14-0 in the final.
They’d earlier easily swatted aside their group rivals, including commanding 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.
With Japan up first on day one, Richards and Co are under no illusion just how tough the job is in front of them. But he insists the UAE simply want to go there and compete.
“This weekend expectations are based more around our performances rather than results,” added the Englishman.
“We want to be able to compete for the entire 14 minutes, staying in our attacking and defensive shapes – this will give us confidence going into leg two and three of the series – and results are usually more favourable with strong performances.
“We are under no illusions that this is going to be a tough leg of a very tough tournament, first up against Japan on day one, but Apollo is adapting our game plan to suit our strengths.
“Apollo just wants us to enjoy the experience, give a good account of ourselves personally and as a team, and build into the series as a whole rather than just focus on one weekend.”
The three-leg series will move on to China and Huizhou from September 14-15 and conclude in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from September 28-29.
Training has been arduous in the scorching UAE summer, but it is also something that puts the UAE at an advantage, according to Richards.
He added: “Training has been hot, especially when we’ve been having two field sessions sandwiching the gym sessions, although the boys have been conditioning for a while now so our fitness helps with combatting the heat.”
Hong Kong, the Philippines, South Korea and Chinese Taipei make up Pool B in the opening leg of the series.
Born and raised in the UAE, it may not surprise you to discover that Emirati Mansour Al Zaabi is a petroleum engineer.
What may shock you though is that what really fuels the 27-year-old is his fiery passion for rugby, one he discovered when he was welcomed into the Abu Dhabi Harlequins family four years ago.
Al Zaabi was looking for a sport to take up, with rugby peaking his interest. However, it wasn’t until he researched the sport that he realised it was even being played – and not only that, but thriving too – in his own backyard.
He has since gone from rugby novice to rugby nut, and was bestowed with the great honour of being named Quins club captain for the 2019/20 season – the first Emirati to hold such a prestigious position in UAE rugby.
“It’s a funny story,” recalls Al Zaabi, who has been a stalwart of Quins’ 3rds – the BaaBaas – since first pitching up at Zayed Sports City in 2015.
“I was just looking into sports I could practice. Rugby took my attention and I did my research, to see if this sport existed in UAE. I found Abu Dhabi Harlequins and I reached out and got welcomed to join immediately.
“There is that reputation about rugby, a lot think of people think it’s a violent game which leads to injuries, but that’s true in any other sport also. Rugby has its own uniqueness and special bonds compared to other sports.
“Before the Quins I had no background or any understanding about this sport, so being welcomed and treated as part of the family from day one made me want to give back to the club and to rugby.
“I’m going to give it a go and I hope to be part of spreading the sport of rugby in the UAE.”
It is a role Abu Dhabi-born Al Zaabi is relishing, even if he jokes that he was bullied into it.
“Peer pressure,” he says when asked what made him become club captain.
“I always wanted to give back to the club and rugby one day. I just didn’t expect that day to be this soon with only spending four years with the club.
“It is such a big privilege, it comes with a lot of responsibilities and I have big shoes to fill.”
Many expatriates are thousands of miles away from home in the Emirates, and yet in terms of numbers they heavily outweigh the locals.
The UAE’s Emirati population equates to roughly just over 10 per cent of the nation’s approximate 9.68 million residents (11.48 per cent) in 2019, according to data provided by the World Bank.
That’s an expat population of roughly 88.52 per cent. The same gargantuan gap is even more true of the rugby-playing fraternity, with the semi-pro game played at three different levels by swathes of South Africans, Brits, Europeans and more.
And yet, there is more than a smattering of local interest too. Take Al Zaabi for example, who has become entranced by the brutal yet beautiful sport.
Besides him, there is plenty of local interest and talent. The UAE Rugby Federation’s Player Pathway Programme (PPP) was launched in late 2011 while the Dubai Airports Shaheen Development Programme is the federation’s Emirati youth pathway, which focuses on developing players aged 15-19 years and primarily the sevens format of the game. The focus is on home grown indigenous talent who in time could represent the UAE national teams. There is a mandatory requirement, meanwhile, for Apollo Perelini’s national XV squads to include a percentage of local players at all levels.
Another Emirati Quins player to come to prominence in recent years is winger Adel Al Hendi, whose mother is Welsh. He has featured numerous times for the UAE sevens sides, while Hassan Al Noobi and Mohammed Hassan have both travelled with the XV’s squad and competed at the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC). The duo came to prominence at Arabian Knights before earning moves to Abu Dhabi Saracens.
Elsewhere, Fahad Ali was one of the early Emirati stars when he was named Dubai Exiles’ most improved player in the 2014/15 season. He was presented with his award by then South Africa captain Jean de Villiers.
In March this year, three of the Al Ain Amblers side that lost 37-21 to eventual champions Dubai Tigers on the final day of the second-tier UAE Conference season were Emirati – Ebrahim Doraee, Khalid Al Junaibi and Mohammed Al Marar have flourished into established members at the Garden City club in recent years.
It is a poignant move for both Al Zaabi and Quins, who will be celebrating a huge milestone during the course of the new season. They celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, having been established as the Abu Dhabi Rugby Union Football Club in 1970.
As well as being one of the oldest clubs in the UAE, they are also one of the most successful too, especially in recent seasons with the club having swept up the majority of silverware.
They are in a transitional period at the moment, although they did still manage to lift the UAE Premiership title last season. But Al Zaabi is hoping to help the club maintain their status as one of the top dogs.
“There are big responsibilities and I would like to make a positive impact and take the club to a bigger level,” said Al Zaabi, who graduated as a petroleum engineer in April.
“That is hard to achieve because the club is the most successful club in the last decade, but that’s a challenge I will take, to make us even better.”
He has other ambitions too. “I want to get a permanent home for the club, which is an issue. I would say most if not all clubs in the UAE suffer from.
“A lot of the club’s budget goes to pitch renting. Having our own home club will take the Quins to the next level.”
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.”