x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Adel Al Hendi ready to help build it bigger and better

Adel Al Hendi aims to bring rugby from the valleys to the desert. It all starts with the all-Emirati team he will be a part of at the Asian Sevens Series in Thailand.

Adel Al Hendi, an 18-year-old UAE rugby player, got involved in the sport thanks to an uncle. Courtesy Elite Step
Adel Al Hendi, an 18-year-old UAE rugby player, got involved in the sport thanks to an uncle. Courtesy Elite Step

UAE rugby officials may have found the poster boy to front their ambitious Emiratisation plan in the form of a university student who speaks English with a broad Welsh accent.

Adel Al Hendi, 18, may have been born and raised in Abu Dhabi, but he is far from your average Emirati sportsman, as one look at his Twitter page proves.

Rather than the ubiquitous Lionel Messi or Omar Abdulrahman, the backdrop instead shows three celebrating British & Irish Lions rugby players.

Anyone might suspect the young Abu Dhabi Harlequins winger has an identity crisis. The man himself knows exactly where his priorities lie, though.

“When I was young, my uncle wanted me to play rugby, as he wanted to instil some Welshness in me, but I took it to be an Emirati thing and wanted to develop the game here,” Al Hendi said. “It is so big in Wales and when I saw that, I thought we might be able to make it big out here as well.”

As the son of an Emirati father and Welsh mother, Al Hendi was introduced to the sport six years ago on one of his annual summer visits to the principality.

It is a marker of the standard he has reached in the intervening time that, despite his age, he is already one of the leading players in the UAE’s all-Emirati sevens side.

Having graduated from Choueifat school in the capital, he now dovetails studying for a business degree with his rugby commitments that have taken him to Thailand for the second leg of the Asian Sevens Series this weekend.

“I went and trained for one night, and they said my fitness was up to standard and that they wanted me to travel and stay with them,” he said of selection for the national team.

“I was keen, being young and wanting to travel, and it is a very good level to play at.

“I was very proud. It is everyone’s dream to represent their country in anything, and I was lucky enough to do it in rugby.”

He is under no illusion that the odds are against his inexperienced side.

The Rugby Federation have elected not to use expatriate players for sevens this season. The emerging Emiratis will need strong minds to avoid becoming overwhelmed by adverse results, but Al Hendi understands the situation.

“We know it is tough going out into a competition that is that high a level when we are just starting out, but we are building for bigger and better things,” he said. “We are wanting to go to the Olympics. It is going to take time, everything does, but we just try to keep the boys motivated.

“Anything good we do on the field, we try to emphasise how amazing it is. We all stand by each other.” It is this can-do attitude that has so endeared Al Hendi to his coaches at both the international and domestic levels.

“He is a lot further along the development scale than some of the other Emirati players because of the club rugby he has played,” said Wayne Marsters, the UAE rugby manager.

“He is young and fit and a perfect fit for the sevens format.

“He is also quite an aggressive winger, which we liked about how he plays. He never shies away from the physical side.”

Chris Davies, who coached Al Hendi’s Under 18 Harlequins side last season, said: “He is a very likeable character who has plenty of pace and lots of heart, [and] a no-fear attitude.

“I would say the turning point for him as a player was a combination of two occasions, one positive and one negative.

“The positive was the rugby league experience he gained at the end of last season.

“The negative was when he got sent off in last year’s U18s Dubai Sevens final after 15 seconds into the game for a tip tackle, which was later scrapped.”

That dismissal, in front of 40,000 people on the main field at the Sevens, fuels Al Hendi each time he steps on the field.

“I was crushed,” he said. “I was on for 15 seconds before getting a red card.

“Finally getting there, looking around and thinking: ‘I’m here, I’ve made it’. Then to get sent off was a big heartbreak, but you move through it.

“It motivated me to get there again. Things like that happen in your career.

“You just have to take it on the chin and work through it.”

pradley@thenational.ae