Asia Rugby Championship Division 1 2017 / RWC 2019 Qualifier
As we build up towards the forthcoming Asia Rugby Championship Division 1/RWC 2019 Qualifier, this is our first of 4 ‘State of the Union’ reports on the unions playing in Ipoh, Malaysia next week. We start with the 4th seed, promoted from Division 2 last year, the UAE.
Expatriates in the Oil & Gas industry and British military personnel in Kuwait first introduced the Game to the Middle East in 1946-47. In 1974, rugby community clubs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah in the UAE plus from Dhahran in Saudi Arabia; Doha in Qatar and Bahrain formed the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU). A referee society was also formed.
The first league of any sort was established for the 1975/76 season. The composition of leagues varied each year depending on the financial strength and playing numbers of the clubs for the travel involved. Individual club-run tournaments also grew, as well as the regional Gulf Cup.
The AGRFU moved from under the umbrella of the English RFU in 1990 to become a (what was then) IRB member union for 20 years. In its heyday, the AGRFU’s membership grew to 20 clubs from across the whole of the Middle East and its representative teams competed at international level in IRB competitions, notably beating the likes Hong Kong, Korea and Kazakhstan in its final year in 2010.
From 1 January 2011, World Rugby’s governance restructuring project in the IOC region of West Asia saw the creation and underpinning of new National Governing Bodies (NGBs) in a number of Middle Eastern countries, with the UAE Rugby Federation effectively being the successor to the former AGRFU. The restructure ensured that unions in West Asia would be in the best possible position to optimize the benefits of Rugby’s Olympic inclusion in the Rio 2016 Games and thereafter and provided the blueprint for accelerated growth in both existing and emerging Rugby markets. Today, the UAE Rugby Federation is the region’s Rugby hub, not least because of the annual Emirates Airline Dubai 7s tournament, which hosts the opening round of the HSBC Sevens World Series. Emirates Airline is also the UAE national teams’ sponsor, as well as a sponsor of Rugby World Cup and World Rugby referees.
The UAE union commendably assists Gulf region clubs in Bahrain, Doha, Muscat and Kuwait without a NGB to maintain their Rugby by administering Asia Rugby cross-border club competitions in which they play against UAE clubs. The pinnacle Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League tournament every September also features the top clubs from Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan.
UAE Head of High Performance, Apollo Perelini, the former Samoan international back rower and professional Union and League club player in New Zealand and England told Asia Rugby:“I was taken on by the UAERF in 2015 to implement a long-term project to make our national teams as competitive as possible, with one eye on trying to reach the ARC Top 3 by 2018. It was a setback to lose to Malaysia in Division 2 in 2015 by just 1 point. Malaysia got promoted and we had to wait another year to win Division 2 last year to get to where we are now.
“I had one on one conversations with a number of players after last year’s victory to gauge whether they were prepared to commit to an increased conditioning programme over the past year and I’m pleased to say they have, which is a big commitment for what are at best Serious Amateur players, not paid in any way. The squad has been training really well, with systems they haven’t tried at club level before.”
As ever in the potpourri UAE, Perelini’s squad is multi-nations one comprising mostly expatriate players eligible under World Rugby Regulations, but which also features 3 Emirati nationals, who have made their way on merit through the Player Pathway Programme put in place by the union since 2011.
Perelini told Asia Rugby: “The squad is a nice mixture. We always struggle with the transitional ex pat life and school cycle, losing and gaining a few good players each year. It’s a younger squad than in the past. All bar 4 are under 30.
“The quality of the West Asia Premiership competition has improved considerably over the past 2 years, not least because of the coaches at some of the Gulf and UAE clubs, such as Henry Paul (former England Rugby League and England 7’s) at Jebel Ali Dragons and Jacques Bernard at Dubai Exiles, who formerly played at the Natal Sharks and then coached in Ireland. The UAE is well positioned to attract such Tier 1 rugby knowledge into its amateur club rugby”, where there are formal relationships between UAE clubs and the likes of the Aviva Premiership’s Harlequins and Saracens clubs.
“We also have some professional player knowledge in the squad this year. Skipper and blind side flanker, Ben Bolger (Abu Dhabi Harlequins) used to play Rugby League for the London Broncos. And I’m expecting good things from our Fly Half, Luke Stevenson (also Abu Dhabi Harlequins), who is a very talented player. Our no 8 of the past 3 years, South African Jaen Botes (Abu Dhabi Saracens) will again be a leader amongst the forwards. Of our Emirati boys, winger Majid Al Balooshi and centre Walid Al Balooshi (Shaheen, an all Emirati team) are fresh from the Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy tournament in Doha in February and will definitely see some game time.”
When reminded that all 4 teams next week are only 10 matches away from a Rugby World Cup Repechage opportunity, Perelini commented: “Yes, that’s definitely a motivator and we hope to win next week and be able to have a crack at the likes of Korea and Hong Kong next year. We’re definitely up for that.”
The UAE had to start at the bottom of the ranking as a new union in 2011, so it currently sits 72nd in the World Rugby rankings, which belies the team’s actual strength. Expect close matches as the men from the UAE look to rise up the rankings, hoping to win next week’s tournament.
Sunday 14 May: v Malaysia (World Ranking 54th)
Wednesday 17 May: v Sri Lanka (40th)
Saturday 20 May: v Philippines (57th)
- Ben Bolger, Captain (Abu Dhabi Harlequins)
- Paul Hart (Jebel Ali Dragons)
- Joshua Ives (Dubai Hurricanes)
- Ben Blamire (Jebel Ali Dragons)
- Daniel Minks (Jebel Ali Dragons)
- Ross Byers (Abu Dhabi Saracens)
- Christopher Jones-Griffiths (Abu Dhabi Harlequins)
- Daniel Perry, Vice-Captain (Dubai Hurricanes)
- Edward Talbot (Abu Dhabi Harlequins)
- Christopher Masson (Jebel Ali Dragons)
- Jaen Botes (Abu Dhabi Saracens)
- David Knight (Dubai Hurricanes)
- Glenn Moore (Dubai Exiles)
- Kristopher Green (Jebel Ali Dragons)
- Luke Stevenson (Abu Dhabi Harlequins)
- Majid Al Balooshi (UAE Shaheen)
- Scott Hayes (Jebel Ali Dragons)
- Andrew Powell (Dubai Hurricanes)
- Sean Carey (Dubai Exiles)
- Daniel Bell (Jebel Ali Dragons)
- Ryno Fourie (Jebel Ali Dragons)
- Walid Al Balooshi (UAE Shaheen)
- Edward Lewsey (Abu Dhabi Harlequins)
- Rikus Swart (Abu Dhabi Saracens)
- Toby Oakley (Dubai Hurricanes)
- Ahmed Moosa (UAE Shaheen)
Article: Asia Rugby
Photos Curtesy: Alex Johnson