He may not have been part of the final installment as his adopted nation celebrated, but Jaen Botes was nonetheless able to revel in the UAE’s fine achievement of securing their Asia Rugby Sevens Series status for 2020.
Coach Apollo Perelini had made it his ambition to finish in the top four overall from the three legs of the 2019 edition, but competing in South Korea, China and Sri Lanka against seven other teams – who all train as professional outfits – was always going to be a monumental task.
In the end the UAE finished seventh overall, which means they qualify for next year’s series ahead of Chinese Taipei, relegated to the second tier Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy competition.
A strong showing in Colombo last weekend, on the series’ final leg, saw the UAE finish jointly on seven points with Taipei, but Perelini’s charges survived having amassed a far superior points difference across the three-leg series which has taken place over the last month.
And despite being in Japan at the Rugby World Cup with friends and family as his team-mates secured their status, Dubai Exiles powerhouse Botes was able to share in the joy.
“I unfortunately didn’t attend the last leg as I was away in Japan, however the boys and everyone involved put in a massive effort to secure our spot on the circuit for next year,” said a delighted Botes.
“It was a tough few weeks in camp and across all three legs we have set some standards but have a lot of work to do for next year.
“I’m sure everyone involved over the last few months has learned a lot and has had a decent amount of exposure to help with the preparation for next year.”
The UAE steadily improved over the three legs. They finished bottom of their pool in Incheon with just three points, although they did at least thrash Taipei in the seventh-eighth place play-off.
In Huizhou in mid-September they claimed five points in the pool but then slipped to Taipei in the Plate semi-finals before then falling to the Philippines in the play-off to come eighth.
The final weekend didn’t get off to a great start following a 34-0 defeat at the hands of Hong Kong at the Racecourse Stadium in Colombo.
But the UAE bounced back to beat Korea 24-17 in their next match. They went down to the tournament hosts early on Sunday, losing 35-10, but again recovered to win their maiden knockout game of the series, trouncing sorry Taipei 38-0 in the Plate semis.
That put them into the Plate final, guaranteeing them their best finish of the series, although they had to be content with sixth place after narrowly losing 19-14 to the Philippines.
South African Botes, for now, is concentrating on cheering his beloved Springboks to what he hopes will be Webb Ellis Cup success in the Land of the Rising Sun. But he is already casting an eye to the horizon and next year’s series.
“For myself it was an unbelievable experience to have played against all the professional athletes on the circuit and gave me motivation to work even harder now towards next year,” he added.
“The management and everyone involved behind the scenes has made it far more enjoyable than any other trip. I’m sure we will build our experience and look to better ourselves and look to grow as a squad over the next few months.
“It wasn’t the place we wanted to finish overall (seventh), however we have a lot of potential and we’re grateful for the opportunity to play the game we love and at such a high level. I’m sure we will come back next year and look to be top contenders on the Asia Sevens circuit.”
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The UAE saved the best for last as they achieved a sixth-place finish at the Sri Lanka 7s, thereby securing their spot on the Asia Rugby Sevens Series for 2020.
It had been Apollo Perelini’s ambition to finish in the top four overall from the three legs of the 2019 edition but he and his players will be content with finishing seventh overall, which means they qualify for next year’s series ahead of Chinese Taipei who were relegated to the second tier Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy competition. They will be replaced next year by Malaysia.
A 34-0 defeat at the hands of Hong Kong at the Racecourse Stadium in Colombo on Saturday did not augur well for Perelini’s troops, but they bounced back to beat South Korea 24-17 in their next match – Luke Stevenson, Andrew Powell, Matt Richards and Niko Volavola scoring their tries.
They went down to the tournament hosts early on Sunday, Conor John Kennedy and Esekaia Dranibota going over in the losing 35-10 effort. They recovered to win their maiden knockout game of the series – and in some style too – trouncing Taipei 38-0 in the Plate semis.
Force of nature Sakiusa Naisau stormed over for a hat-trick while Kennedy, Andrew Semple and Justin Walsh also scored tries as the UAE set up a showdown with the Filipinos – Stevenson and Richards’ tries, both converted by the former, not quite enough as they were edged out 19-14.
But it is the grand prize of a place on next year’s circuit that will be valued above all else by all involved.
And Dubai Hurricanes speedster Jerry Kilicanasau confirmed the players are happy to have survived, which will give them a chance to prove next year that they belong at this level.
“It’s not a bad result for the last tour (of the series), it’s better than being last and to drop back to Tier 2,” he said.
“So we’re happy with the results for staying up in the league and competing with professional teams as we know that we’re meant to be up at that level.”
The UAE have steadily improved over the three legs, held over the course of the last month in Korea, China and Sri Lanka. They finished bottom of their pool in Incheon with just three points, although they did at least thrash Taipei in the seventh-eighth place play-off.
In Huizhou in mid-September they claimed five points in the pool but then lost to Taipei in the Plate semi-finals before then falling to the Philippines in the play-off to come eighth.
But in Colombo last weekend they put in their strongest performance, beating Korea in the pool before dispatching of Taipei with ease. They were pipped by the Philippines in the final but had done enough to secure their status for next year.
Continental heavyweights Japan and Hong Kong finished joint top overall with 32 points, with the UAE on seven with Taipei, but their better record over the three legs counted in their favour.
Asia Rugby Sevens Series 2019 – overall standings
Rank Team Korea China Sri Lanka Overall points
1 Japan 12 8 12 32
2 Hong Kong 10 12 10 32
3 China 8 10 8 26
4 Sri Lanka 5 7 7 19
5 South Korea 7 5 1 13
6 Philippines 4 2 5 11
7 UAE 2 1 4 7
8 Chinese Taipei 1 4 2 7
Apollo Perelini saw the UAE’s fine effort on the opening leg of the 2019 Asia Rugby Sevens Series in South Korea undone somewhat as they had to settle for last place in China at the weekend.
But the national team coach claimed finishing eighth of eight teams in China was far from an undoing of their strong performances in Incheon two weeks previously. On the inaugural leg of this year’s series, the UAE had pushed opponents all the way, losing four of their five games but only trailing them across the weekend by a total margin of 12 points – conceding 100 but also scoring 88.
They won one and lost four once again in Huizhou, but whereas their maiden win came in the 7th/8th final against Chinese Taipei two weeks earlier, they suffered a 26-5 defeat to the Philippines in the same match in China.
But Perelini was proud of the efforts from his charges – the only team of the eight competing on the series who train and play part-time.
“There was progress made by those who played in Korea,” insisted the New Zealander.
“That’s why we are training four times. I have seen the stakes upped by all the other teams as they head back to a full-time set-up. The Philippines and Chinese Taipei head back into camp where they are training every day as they don’t work, and so are the full-time teams.
“We are they only non-full-time training side in the competition.
“It’s always tough work when players come home and go straight back into full-time jobs. We’ve only been able to train two times a week due to availability of players because of their work commitments.”
The biggest margin of defeat suffered in Korea was a 29-7 loss to superpower Japan in the pool phase. Defeats to China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines were by a total margin of just 16 points before they thrashed Taipei 31-5 in the final.
In Huizhou, however, a 21-17 group stage win over the Filipinos was the one bright spot as they suffered 22-7 and 36-0 defeats to Hong Kong and the hosts respectively. They were edged out 24-19 by Taipei in the Plate semi-final. Jebel Ali Dragons full-back Matt Richards described how the UAE were 19-0 ahead with five minutes to go before fitness and fatigue kicked in and allowed their opponents to score 24 points in five minutes and win on the buzzer.
The UAE now prepare for the third and final installment of the 2019 series, which concludes in Colombo, Sri Lanka, over the weekend of September 28-29.
UAE results (Asia Rugby Sevens Series Leg 2 – Huizhou, China)
Hong Kong 22 UAE 7
Philippines 17 UAE 21
China 36 UAE 0
UAE 19 Chinese Taipei 24
UAE 5 Philippines 26