DUBAI // After two weeks that rank among the bleakest ever for rugby in this country, the UAE swapped the horror show for the highlights reel as they all but secured their status among the elite of Asian rugby yesterday.
By the end of their uplifting win over Kazakhstan, the thrashings against Japan and Hong Kong were a distant memory as the national team were showing skills worthy of the Harlem Globetrotters, let alone the Barbarians.
If a better try is scored in this year’s Asian Five Nations than Imad Reyal’s second, and his team’s sixth, it is guaranteed to be a YouTube hit.
The diminutive Sri Lankan is in the habit of scoring eye-catching tries at The Sevens, after touching down a fine individual effort in front of thousands at last year’s Dubai Sevens.
This time, all he did was apply the finishing touch to a thrilling passing move. Patrick Hegarty, who was imperious at scrum-half for the national team even though he plays the majority of his domestic rugby at centre, started the move with a sharp break and dextrous offload.
It culminated with John Fawls, the winger who had just been sent back on to the field after thinking he was due to be substituted, slipping the ball through his legs to Reyal, who splashed down with an outlandish swallow-dive.
“It was like a sevens try,” Duncan Hall, the UAE performance manager, said. “We have to work on how Imad puts the ball down over the line, as we don’t want him to hurt himself.
“He saw himself on TV on the flight to [Japan] which had the highlights of Dubai Sevens. Good on him.”
The quality of tries they scored belied the fact there had been significant pressure on the national team before the start.
Lose, and there was an odds-on chance they would be relegated from the top tier of Asian competition, with just the prospect of a tricky trip to South Korea remaining.
“Kazakhstan was always the game we knew we could win,” Alistair Thompson, the UAE captain, said.
“What we have done today is moulded UAE rugby for the next year, as we will be able to stay up in the top flight now.”
The national team weathered a strong fightback by the Kazakhs in the second phase, which said much about both the fitness and courage that exists within this team.
The thermometer had read 43C when the game kicked off at 4pm, and both sets of players were visibly exhausted by the end.
“When you play [in Kazakhstan] we would like to invite your players to play in Siberia,” Alexandr Stalmakhovich, the Kazakh coach, said.
On the sidelines, from the low of the civil unrest within the game a week earlier, yesterday brought with it the sort of high which rugby does so well. The whole day was one long show of unity.
Ahead of the game, the country’s Emirati development side roared their senior colleagues on to the field through a guard of honour.
Their encouragement was echoed even more vocally by that of a group of players who have opted out of representing the national team, but were present to support their erstwhile colleagues.
Earlier in the day, the domestic clubs had joined together in an eminently more important cause, raising awareness about Muthana Khafaji, the Dubai Hurricanes player who is currently battling cancer in Jordan.
Led by the Hurricanes, a large group of current and former players from the domestic circuit kayaked around The World islands.
Meanwhile, another set ran a marathon around Dubai.
With their match kicking off at 4pm, the UAE’s players had been ordered to drink half a litre of water for every waking hour from Thursday lunchtime onwards.
As such, a morning jaunt around the Arabian Gulf in a kayak was off the menu for any of the their Hurricanes contingent, even if the mind was willing.
“I am really proud of them, the way everyone has pulled together to put on such an event, and it is not just the Hurricanes, it is the full rugby community,” Greg Thompson, the Hurricanes lock, said after his rampaging display for the UAE against Kazakhstan.
“I saw all the messages and pictures on Facebook of the guys who were up at 5am to kayak around The World and run around Dubai.
“It was really impressive. The guys are really rowing in behind Moe and it has really buoyed his spirits.”