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JJ Fanucci is currently studying in South Africa and may give Italy a try first before the UAE.
JJ Fanucci is currently studying in South Africa and may give Italy a try first before the UAE.
Majid Al Balooshi, in red with the ball, is the first product of UAE’s school programme.
Majid Al Balooshi, in red with the ball, is the first product of UAE’s school programme.
Imad Reyal, right, in green, is considering studying abroad in Australia.
Imad Reyal, right, in green, is considering studying abroad in Australia.

With eyes on tomorrow UAE rugby hope the kids are all right

Freshly relegated, no better time for a youth movement than the present, writes Paul Radley.

Just after the UAE were relegated from the top tier of Asian rugby at the weekend, Duncan Hall, the team's performance manager, hit on the nub of one of the problems here.

"With the average age of our squad at 33 years old, we are still going to face the same challenges [in 2014] we did this year," he said.

"We will need to identify some new, younger players now and work intensively with them over the next 12 months."

This time next year, many of the players from this relegation campaign will be gone. Not because they are not good enough or because they have been binned as a reaction to demotion.

Quite the opposite. Many of them are the leading players in this country. However, the majority are well in to their 30s.

Jetting around Asia chasing a rugby ball is becoming increasingly difficult for them to fit with work or family life.

And the wearying limbs are saying no, too.

The problem is not a new one. A reliance on expatriate players who have come to the region for work, who then have to stay for at least three years before they are even eligible for selection, partly explaining the high average age.

It needs to change, but is not an easy conundrum to solve. The standard of mini, youth and schools rugby in this country is - given the relatively small rugby-playing population - excellent.

Yet it is not as simple as that. There is a black hole when it comes to rugby players between 18 and 21, because the majority go abroad to study. Many stay there.

The powers that be are more or less powerless to stop it. How can they interfere in a player's education and future prospects when they only have an amateur game to offer as an inducement to stay?

However, long-term investment in players can work, even in a transient, expatriate-dominated environment.

Look at Hong Kong. In 2008, a university graduate called Rowan Varty scored a try for them in a 20-12 win over Arabian Gulf in the first Asian Five Nations match in Al Ain.

Five years on he has become so well-established, he captains their sevens team and has been picked to play for the Barbarians against the British & Irish Lions this summer.

The UAE do not have to aim quite that high. However, they should be looking at a crop of players who could form the basis of the team six years from now.

In 2019, the World Cup will be staged in Japan, and Asia could have two guaranteed qualifying berths for the competition.

Would the players selected in a team of UAE prospects be keen to play for the national team in that?

You would hope so.

In six years, this list would have an average age of around 24. If some established imports are still around - outstanding players like Andy Russell and Jeremy Manning will be in their early 30s by that time - the player base would be strong.

With the best will in the world, not all of these players will stay or even evolve as top-flight rugby players. Education and employment, if that takes them abroad, must come first.

However, if the UAE can retain a majority of them, then the national team should be in decent shape come 2019.

 

15 Imad Reyal (Full-back, Dubai)

Has the talent to play professionally and is hoping to impress potential suitors either on the summer sevens circuit or, possibly, while studying abroad in Australia.

Will be forever bound to the UAE, though, having excelled at sevens and XVs for the national team, so he needs to be retained in the fold.

 

14 Majid Al Balooshi (Wing, Dubai)

The first product of UAE Rugby's Emirati schools programme has barely been playing a year and is extremely raw.

However, he has been bitten by the bug, has natural aptitude, and looks better with every appearance. Could become the poster boy for Emirati rugby.

 

13 Ben Bolger (Centre, Abu Dhabi)

A relatively recent arrival to the country who is more than two years away from qualifying for selection.

However, he recently intimated he would be interested in sticking around for a tilt at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. He would be a great addition to the union ranks, too.

 

12 Michael Sole (Centre, Dubai)

The young Dubai Exiles centre would almost certainly have been involved in the Asian Five Nations this season had injury not struck.

His father, Tony, has a long- standing association with rugby here, having played for a variety of clubs in the region in the past. Son Michael represents the future.

 

11 Malcolm Greenslade (Wing, Abu Dhabi)

Abu Dhabi-born and raised, the Harlequins wing made his debut for the national team at the Cup of Nations at the end of last year.

"He has got gas, hits like a steam train and scores tries in important games," said Chris Davies, the Quins director of rugby, upon Greenslade's recall to the team at the weekend.

 

10 Quihen Marais (Fly-half, Al Ain)

He was handed a debut in senior international rugby as a teenager at the end of 2011 by Wayne Marsters, the UAE rugby manager who is one of the canniest talent spotters.

The Al Ain-raised fly-half has been studying in South Africa since then, but should be the No 10 on which the UAE build their future.

 

9 Sam Bullock (Scrum-half, Dubai)

In his final year of school at Dubai College (DC) and planning to head to the UK for studies, but he would be an asset to the UAE team.

"If he sticks at it for three years at university and comes out the other side, he could be semi-professional or above," said Andy Jones, the director of sport at DC.

 

1 Sirilo Laladidi (Loose forward, Al Ain)

Named in the front row of this national team merely because props are usually late developers and have the toughest graduation from youth to men's rugby of any position. As such, it is not easy to tell which of them will be thriving in six years. Still, Laladidi, an 18-year-old No 8 for Al Ain Amblers, would probably be able to anchor the scrum, given his powerful build. However, his rich talents will be best exploited in the back row.

 

2 Jonny Greenwood (Hooker, Dubai)

Fished out of second-tier club rugby to make his UAE debut at age 21 last year, he has evolved enough in the meantime to be entrusted with a starting place in the vital game in Manila on Saturday.

The Abu Dhabi-born hooker should remain a key part of the national team for years.

 

3 Christy McCormick (Prop, Abu Dhabi)

A product of British School Al Khubairat (BSAK) who was advanced enough as a tight-head prop to play men's rugby while still at school.

The British front-row forward, who is currently at university in Wales, has represented the UAE at age-group level.

 

4 Tristan Barnett (Lock, Dubai)

Left the UAE at the end of last year to study in Canada, which meant the national team lost one of their few tall line-out jumpers.

The South African lived in Dubai between age 19 and 23 and is tied to play for the country via his appearances at the Cup of Nations.

 

5 Jordan Onojaife (Lock, Dubai)

If the UAE ever were able to call on this lock forward, it would be a major bonus for the country - but perhaps less so for the player himself.

The Jumeirah College and Dubai Exiles alumnus plays for England Under 18s and is targeting a professional career with Premiership finalists Northampton Saints.

 

6 Janneman Venter (Flanker, Dubai)

From strong rugby stock. Father Jan is the highly regarded coach of the Exiles, and elder brother Stephan is on the Western Province radar in South Africa. The next Venter is clearly precocious. His dad felt confident enough to throw him into a top-flight men's domestic match at age 16 last season.

 

7 JJ Fanucci (Flanker, Dubai)

Along with Marais and Stephan Venter, Fanucci is one of three talented, UAE-qualified players currently studying in South Africa. He wants to try his luck with Italy first. If he does make the international grade, he will follow in the footsteps of his mother, Candy, who played for the Arabian Gulf.

 

8 Iziq Foa'i (No 8, Abu Dhabi)

Rated by his club coach, Chris Davies, as the brightest prospect in UAE rugby at present, he already holds his own in the men's game despite being only 17. The Cambridge schoolboy could play at centre or flanker, but would also be a powerful weapon as a ball-carrier.

 

Others to monitor:

X-James Capon Speedy winger who is so talented, other sports may take him first.

X-Greg Cannie Dubai College product who has played top club rugby in Scotland.

X-Matt Travers Jumeirah College fly-half hoping to hone his game at university in the UK.

X-Fraser Knox Stocky scrum-half who followed brother Kyle's lead by excelling for BSAK.

X-Patrick Camaivuna Winger was player of the season at Al Ain Amblers at age 19.

 

pradley@thenational.ae

 

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE

 

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