Mike Ballard has vowed to be as big a presence at Abu Dhabi Harlequins as he was as a player when he returns to the UAE, following his trip of a lifetime to the Rugby World Cup.
Ballard remains in a wheelchair following the horrific spinal injury he suffered playing for Quins in the West Asia Champion Cup final on April 4, 2014.
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It is a day the 30-year-old will never forget, but having completed his rehabilitation at home in Michigan he is set to return to the capital at the end of the year. And his passion for rugby burns as brightly as ever.
Indeed, it was on display last month as he and tour operator Ed Lewsey sped around the south west of England and Wales taking in World Cup games in Brighton, Cardiff and Twickenham.
Ballard described the trip as “one last little hurrah before I go back into the working world” after Wales’ dramatic win over England.
“A couple of the coaches out there have younger kids, and I’ve worked with the younger kids [so, I can help there],” he added of his potential return to Quins in a coaching capacity.
“Any game day type of thing, anything I can do with the ones and the two and the vets, there’s always something going on and stuff to do. I’ll be out there probably more than I was before.”
Lewsey, a team-mate at Quins and co-founder of the Mike Ballard Foundation, kept the pair busy during their time in the UK.
Ballard spent time with USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville having watched the Eagles’ match with Samoa, while an altogether unplanned stop at Richmond en route to Twickenham resulted in a meeting with Wales legend Derek Quinnell.
The breathless tour, meanwhile, also took in stops at Exeter’s Sandy Park, a Devon school, where the American gave a talk to pupils, the Royal Marines’ Commando training centre in Lympstone, where he trained, and Bisham Abbey, where he spoke with other people who have suffered similar injuries.
As he pondered his whistle-stop week under Twickenham’s East Stand, the 30-year-old’s smile was infectious.
“I’m in his debt forever, my gosh,” Ballard continued, referring to Lewsey. “He sorted everything out, we had a van, which we took and did a tour all the way round the south west up to Cardiff. This was our third rugby game and it had to end this way. Obviously we were going to go out with a come-from-behind win in front of a packed house.”
The Quins hierarchy will be happy to hear Ballard has been keeping his hand in in Michigan, as assistant coach of his alma mater Gladwin High School’s American football team.
And he has been passing on some tips from rugby too.
“They always ask me how much more aggressive rugby is and how much meaner,” he added.
“So I’m just trying to get that over to them. Make sure they’re not too soft out there really.”
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The UAE is set to take a lead role in shaping the future of rugby in the region following the formation of the new Arab Rugby Federation (ARF).
The ARF was officially announced on Monday after an extraordinary general meeting was held in Dubai this week.
The ARF has been formed to represent the Arab nations solely in sport of rugby, under the auspices of the Union of Arab National Olympic Committees (UANOC), with the intent to participate in regional games, which follow the pathway to World Rugby, and IOC sanctioned and recognised events.
UAE rugby chief Qais Al Dhalai has been appointed chairman, and said: “The formation of this federation is very important to the development of rugby (in the Arab world) as the sole focus is on rugby itself.
“We aim to support and stimulate World Rugby and Asia Rugby’s strategic objective of growing the game, and open doors for rugby’s inclusion at the upcoming West AsiaGames and the Arab Games, which are both owned by the UANOC.”
The ARF’s committee was also finalised, with Morocco appointed first vice chairman, Tunisia second vice chairman (both Morocco and Tunisia hold World Rugby membership), and UAERF board member Mohamed Shaker appointed as secretary general.
— ARAB RUGBY (@arabrugby) October 1, 2015
Shaker added: “I’m very confident the Arab Rugby Federation will offer various development opportunities to grow the sport among the Arab nations, which at the end of the day will benefit all parties.”
The new federation’s formation was witnessed in the presence ofnine Arab rugby bodies, with the ARF including: UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.
Meanwhile, UAE coach Roelof Kotze has called in three new players to his latest sevens squad for this weekend’s Asian Sevens Series event in Sri Lanka.
Kotze, who will step down after the competition, has included Andrew Carphin, Imad Reyal and Mohamad Hassan in his travelling party.
New Abu Dhabi Saracens full-back Hassan Al Noobi believes his experience with the UAE national team will help him settle in quickly in his new surroundings.
The Emirati, 28, made the move to Al Ghazal this summer, stepping up to the UAE Premiership following two years with Conference side Arabian Knights.
The talented back shone for the UAE 15s team during the Asia Rugby Championship tour to Malaysia in May, notching 23 points in three games for Roelof Kotze’s men.
Al Noobi has also been part of the UAE sevens side that has performed well in two legs of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series in China and Thailand in recent weeks.
“I don’t think it will be difficult for me because I’ve played with the international teams so it will be the same sort of level,” said Al Noobi when asked if he believes he can make the step up at Sarries. “I will try my best to improve and be one of the best players in the league. I’m going to do my best and try to help the team.”
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Al Noobi slotted three of five conversions as Sarries opened their Premiership account for the season on Friday night with a 31-10 defeat of Al Ain Amblers, and he believes Sarries can pick up from a successful 2014-15 campaign, which ended in glorious West Asia Cup triumph against Doha in March.
“From what I’ve seen, Sarries can continue the success and I’m looking forward to hopefully being champions with Saracens, playing in the West Asia Championship and to win that,” he added.
The team are renowned for the family-orientated atmosphere at Al Ghazal and Al Noobi revealed he experienced that first hand at his very first training session.
“I noticed that on the first day,” he said. “When you join a new club and you don’t know any of the boys you feel uncomfortable, but when I came here they made me comfortable from the start.”