DUBAI // Mark Gathercole, the Arabian Gulf's most capped rugby player, is demanding one final performance to make the region proud against Korea at The Sevens tonight. Gathercole was a London Harlequins teammate of the England greats Jason Leonard and Will Carling before leaving the UK for the Middle East in 1993, after reading about the Gulf's early attempts at World Cup qualification in a rugby magazine.
By his reckoning, tonight's Asian Five Nations tie is the 41st official fixture the Gulf have played in International Rugby Board (IRB) competition. He has appeared in 33 of those matches, a number of them as the captain. "It has been an emotional few weeks building up to this," said the prop, 43, who will start the game against Korea on the replacements bench. "It has been a fantastic effort by the squad in all the games. We have felt proud after all of them."
The Gulf claimed their maiden win in the Asian Five Nations, a tournament which started three seasons ago, over Hong Kong in Bahrain a fortnight ago. As such, they can consign Korea to last place - and probable relegation, if they are victorious again tonight. With the Gulf union set to be delisted as IRB members, it is still uncertain whether one of the new unions, most likely the UAE, will assume their place in the competition next year.
Whatever Gulf rugby looks like come next year, Gathercole hopes Bruce Birtwistle, the head coach, will still have a central role to play. "Bruce has single-handedly brought the best out of everybody," Gathercole said of the New Zealander. "Whether you are a first-class player or quite an average player, he will get an average player playing like a first-class player. "That ability has definitely shone through. He has been bringing the best out of every player, and they have performed."
Despite all the ceremony surrounding this evening's match, the Gulf players have not lost sight of the importance of it. "We'll always back ourselves," said Taif al Delamie, the Gulf centre, who insisted spirits are still high despite the 60-5 loss in Japan last weekend. "Korea have the potential to be the second best team in Asia. They are not here to make up the numbers. They have had plenty of time to prepare themselves for this game and we know they are here to win.
"There is the issue of the fact they will be relegated if they don't, so that is going to be a major drive for them." firstname.lastname@example.org