There was a time when the mere presence of New Zealand rugby legend Jonah Lomu on the field would terrify the living daylights out of anyone in sight of him.
However, there was nothing but delight and enthusiasm when the former All Blacks winger paid an impromptu visit to the UAE sevens squad training in Dubai on Tuesday evening, providing pointers for players preparing for the Asian Sevens Series in September.
Lomu, 40, was visiting the UAE for a medical check-up and actually asked UAE Rugby Federation officials if he could visit Roelof Kotze and his squad who were training at 7he Sevens Stadium.
He ran through some drills with the star-struck mix of Emirati and expat players, who are preparing for the new domestic season as well as the two legs of the Series they will be competing at in Shanghai and Colombo in September and October.
UAE national team head coach Kotze said it was both a beneficial and enjoyable evening.
“It was a last minute thing. It wasn’t at all planned. He wanted to come to practice and asked did I mind and I said not at all, come up,” said Kotze.
“Whenever he’s here he always contacts us and we help him here and there with medical stuff. We were fetching him from the doctors and he asked if anything was happening rugby wise.
“Someone said there was training so he asked if he could come. I didn’t think any more of it. The next thing I know here comes the big man strolling down towards the pitch.”
The South African has switched his focus for the upcoming 2015/16 season as far as the sevens side of the game is concerned, deciding to re-introduce expat players to the national set-up in a bid to boost the success rate of the UAE as well as further the development of Emirati players.
— Jonathon Gelsthorpe (@JGelsthorpe) July 29, 2015
Lomu’s presence at training will also have produced a timely fillip after a fairly bleak 2014/15 sevens season, which saw the UAE failing to qualify for Rio 2016 after a poor performance at a pre-Olympic qualifier in Chennai in March.
“Some of them were shocked initially to see him there. He came in, observed the session for most of it then at one stage he just asked if I minded if he said one or two things and I said sure,” said Kotze.
“We were doing a drill and he just said he wanted to tell them one or two things about it, what they’re missing and one or two technical issues.
“He called the boys in and gave them one or two pointers, on the technical aspects of the breakdown and communicating.
“Communication has developed because there are guys that obviously don’t speak Arabic and guys that don’t speak English. He came on and told the guys they were too quiet. That was good because that’s what I’ve been telling them.
“Great minds think alike I guess, although I wouldn’t put myself in with him.”
— UAE Rugby Federation (@uaerugby) July 28, 2015
Kotze paid tribute to Lomu, who also attended a training session the last time he was in the UAE in 2014, when he was a guest at the inaugural UAE Rugby Annual Awards.
Lomu even said he feels the team has improved in the last 12 months.
Kotze added: “Afterwards the players all wanted to have their photos taken with him. It was really good and a nice evening. It was great for the guys. I’m sure everybody there was chuffed to see him and hear what he had to say.
“He’s a nice guy. He was very complimentary, he said the guys were looking better than the last time he saw them. He thinks there’s been an improvement.
“He was here for the UAE Rugby Annual Awards last year and attended one of our sessions and now he’s come out again, so it was nice to hear from him.
“I spoke to him about coming again. When he’s around next I’ll definitely get him in. He always offers to come along when he’s here so perhaps next time we’ll just make it more formal.”
Adel Al Hendi believes his injury woes of last season are behind him and he is looking ahead to the 2015/16 campaign with Abu Dhabi Harlequins and the UAE.
The winger, who was named Emirati Player of the Year at the inaugural UAE Rugby Annual Awards in 2014, enjoyed a flying start to last season, scoring a try on the opening day of the UAE Premiership season against Dubai Hurricanes.
Al Hendi went on to lift the Premiership and Dubai Sevens trophies with Quins, but missed the whole of the Gulf Top Six campaign with a groin injury as they missed out on a treble. The 20-year-old admits he was naive with managing his body last season, but with his injury behind him, can’t wait to get going for both club and country.
“This is the most excited I’ve ever been for a season,” Al Hendi said.
“Quins are looking unbelievable, I don’t even know if I stand a chance of getting in the team but I can’t wait to get back.”
Al Hendi injured his groin in the second Premiership game of the campaign against Abu Dhabi rivals Saracens but completed the Premiership season and then played at the Dubai Sevens in December.
“Last season started really well but then I kind of faded out,” said Al Hendi. “I had a groin problem and I didn’t manage it very well, but it’s sorted now, I know how to manage it but last season I kept on trying to come back and I played through it.
“It was never going to be a case of me waking up the next day and it being better so I’ve learned to be more disciplined, to rest and recover and look after my body properly. I’ve had it for 10 months so now, if I get injured again, I’ll stop and fix it.”
Al Hendi is currently training with the UAE Under-20 sevens team as they prepare to jet out to the Far East for two tournaments in August.
They head to Malaysia on August 7 for a tournament between August 16-17, going on from there to Hong Kong for another two-day tournament between August 22-23.
Joint player/coach Sean Crombie has left the Jebel Ali Dragons but the cause of his exit remains shrouded in secrecy.
Crombie, 28, is to return home to Scotland but club chairman Mike Lewis admits he is “not sure of the reasons” behind his departure, although he has heaped praise on a player who was part of a dominant Dragons which won successive trebles in 2012/13 and 2013/14.
The club, however, struggled after the hooker and team-mate Murray Strang took on player/coach roles after the surprise departure of Ross Mills last season.
They laboured into the Gulf Top Six after finishing fourth in the UAE Premiership and won only two of eight games in the GT6 – finishing fifth – just two points above rock bottom Bahrain.
They were also knocked out at the quarter-final stage of the Dubai Sevens. The club announced last month they were looking to appoint a dedicated head coach to run the team next season, although Crombie and Strang were expected to remain at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence as players.
Crombie, who has played for Scotland’s sevens and also represented his country at Under-19 and Under-21 level, was the first ever player of the year winner at the UAE Rugby Annual Awards in April 2014. His departure is a major blow for an already-vulnerable Dragons following a disastrous campaign.
“I’m not sure of the reasons but he’s returning home to Scotland,” said Dragons chairman Lewis. “I haven’t had a conversation with him about the reasons but I think he’s decided it’s the better option.
“Sean’s a larger than life character and will be missed by all the boys. He’s been a top player and has also been influential off the field too. He’s always vocal and has lots of experience, while outside the club lots of people know and respect him in the UAE rugby community.”
UAE captain and a long-time clubmate of Crombie’s Adam Telford added: “Losing Sean is a major blow. He’s been a big factor at Dragons, a big influence as both a player and a coach, and losing him will be tough.
“He made a massive impact when he came out here and blew the league away in his first season. One of his first games was the 2013 UAE Premiership final against Dubai Hurricanes and he was man-of-the-match.”