Apollo Perelini believes top four finish achievable for UAE at 2019 Asia Rugby Sevens Series

Matt Jones 2/09/2019
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Human Hurricane: Sakiusa Naisau (r) finished joint top tryscorer over the weekend with six scores for the UAE.

They may have lost all but one of their five games, but Apollo Perelini believes his UAE squad can achieve a top-four finish at the 2019 Asia Rugby Sevens Series.

The UAE finished seventh of eight teams in South Korea on Sunday, claiming a morale-boosting 31-5 triumph against Chinese Taipei in their final game of the weekend.

At first glance, four defeats does not seem encouraging, but the fact that Perelini’s men competed in every single game – their heaviest defeat was a credible 29-7 scoreline against continental heavyweights Japan – will encourage both coach and his players.

After a tough start against Japan in Pool A on Saturday, the UAE went down to narrow defeats against China (24-14) and Sri Lanka (21-17) before they were edged out by the Philippines 21-19 in their knockout round encounter on Sunday.

They finished with a 31-5 victory over Taipei – their victory was tellingly bigger than the margin in any of their four defeats – while destructive Dubai Hurricanes centre Sakiusa Naisau finished joint-top try-scorer over the weekend with six scores, level with host nation Korea’s Jeong Min-jang.

And Perelini believes his UAE team will only get better as the tournament progresses – the UAE head to China in two weeks before wrapping up the series in Sri Lanka at the end of the month.

Niko Volavola also scored three tries for the UAE across the two days.

Niko Volavola also scored three tries for the UAE across the two days.

“I think we’re going to get better. We’re playing for a top-four finish and I really believe we can achieve that, both in terms of next time and overall in the series,” Perelini told Sport360.

“We’ve reviewed and we’ll look towards the next tournament in China. We’ve just to keep learning and working hard.

“We also have some good players who didn’t travel to Korea so we might be adding a couple of players to the squad and get some others back ahead of final tournament in Sri Lanka.”

Perelini bemoaned the challenging environment his side have encountered in working towards their return to the elite level of Asian sevens rugby – they have not featured in the top tier Asia Sevens Series in four years.

Since 2015 they’ve been playing in the Development Sevens Series and the Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy, winning the latter last year to return to the elite level.

“The biggest issue was fitness, it always is,” added the New Zealander.

“There has been a lack of preparation and time together because the guys are working and we’ve been training during July and August when players are travelling. A lot of them travel overseas over the summer so getting them back into shape is always the hardest thing.

“Dubai’s weather isn’t exactly conducive to training either. It’s challenging but overall the weekend was very encouraging.

“We were a bit disappointed we lost a couple of the games, particularly against Sri Lanka and the Philippines. We felt we were the better team. But the players are realising the type of level that they are expected to be at, at an Asia tournament.  We’ll come back and reflect on our performances.”

Naisau was the sole UAE try-scorer in defeat to Japan with he and Jebel Ali Dragons flyer Niko Volavola crossing in the China loss. Those two were joined on the scoresheet by Jeremaia Kilicanasau in the narrow loss to Sri Lanka while both also scored yet again in the Philippines loss, with Tobias Oakeley the UAE’s other scorer.

Naisau scored his fifth and sixth tries in victory over Chinese Taipei, while Kini Natuna also charged over for a brace with a fifth scored by Volavola.

RESULTS

Japan 29 UAE 7

China 24 UAE 14

Sri Lanka 21 UAE 17

Philippines 21 UAE 19

UAE 31 Chinese Taipei 5

Most popular

Jebel Ali Dragons veteran Matt Richards hoping to shine as UAE return to Asia Rugby Sevens Series

Matt Jones 29/08/2019
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Matt Richards (bottom, r) pictured with the rest of the UAE squad.

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.

Apollo Perelini leads his side back into the Asia Rugby Sevens Series.

Apollo Perelini leads his side back into the Asia Rugby Sevens Series.

“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.

Matt Richards (r) in action for Dragons.

Matt Richards (r) in action for Dragons.

“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.

Most popular

Mansour Al Zaabi, the Emirati petroleum engineer fueled by his passion for Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Matt Jones 18/08/2019
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Mansour Al Zaabi.

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.

Al Zaabi was part of the Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds team that won the Community League in 2017/18.

Al Zaabi was part of the Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds team that won the Community League in 2017/18.

“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.

Harlequins finished a difficult 2018/19 season on a high by lifting the UAE Premiership in March.

Harlequins finished a difficult 2018/19 season on a high by lifting the UAE Premiership in March.

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.”

Most popular