x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ali Mohammed, UAE rugby's history maker

Ali Mohammed's coaches appreciate his humility and the Emirati was rewarded by represenying the UAE in their Asian Five Nations win against Kazakhstan.

Ali Mohammed, the fastest player on the UAE squad, has been recognized by his coaches for being a team man. He does not mind sitting the bench to wait for a chance to get in the game.
Ali Mohammed, the fastest player on the UAE squad, has been recognized by his coaches for being a team man. He does not mind sitting the bench to wait for a chance to get in the game.

Ali Mohammed's first taste of international rugby amounted to little more than a minute or so, but it was an experience he is likely to cherish forever.

Mohammed and Cyrus Homayoun became the first Emiratis to play Test rugby when they came on together as late replacements in the win over Kazakhstan last Friday in Dubai.

Neither had much time to influence the outcome, though both made important tackles as a crucial victory was closed out. But for Mohammed, just getting on to the field in UAE colours was mission accomplished.

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"It was a great day for me," Mohammed, the Dubai Wasps back, said. "Getting the chance to represent my country, I can't describe the feeling to you.

"It was something amazing. I never dreamed I would be able to play for my country at rugby, but it came true all of a sudden."

It has been a long road for Mohammed, 28, who works as an aircraft engineer in the UAE Air Force. He first fostered an interest in the game during four years studying for his engineering degree in the rugby heartland of Swansea in Wales.

When he returned to his native Dubai, he discovered the embryo of a new Emirati rugby team and signed up straight away.

The Dubai Falcons were the first side of UAE nationals to compete at the Dubai Rugby Sevens, in 2005.

Mohammed was one of the founding players - and the one who has now become the flag-bearer for Emiratis in rugby.

His debut euphoria was shared on the sidelines by an Emirati rugby administrator who has overseen his rise since the start.

"Before Ali went into the game I said, 'Now it is time, after five years'," said Saood Belshalat, who graduated from being the manager of that first Falcons team to being a board member of the UAE Rugby Association now.

"I saw in his eyes what it meant when he realised it was going to happen. Even if it was 10 minutes or whatever, it didn't matter. He just needed one second on this green field. It was dramatic for us.

"This was the time we have waited for after five years. You made history. You were the first guy, out of all the UAE national boys, you and Cyrus were the ones that made it for the first time.

"I am really proud."

As baptisms go, playing Kazakhstan could not be classed as mild.

The uncompromising Kazakh players provide a daunting proposition for even the most experienced expatriate players. However, as he looked on from the replacements bench, Mohammed was far from daunted, as he had a burning desire to get on and do his duty for his country.

"When you are sitting on the bench, you feel like a fire ready to start," Mohammed, the fleet-footed winger, said.

"You are ready to play, and I wanted to get on the field so badly. I wanted to show what I could do on the pitch."

Mohammed, who is the fastest player in the UAE squad, is a coach's dream, as he is happy to defer to teammates with more experience.

"In rugby, you have to be a team man first and foremost, and that is exactly what he is," John Mamea-Wilson, who was Mohammed's first coach with the Falcons, then later Toa Dubai, said. "He doesn't get involved in any dramas, and he realises how far there is to go. He just gets on with the job.

"He has always had good pace, it is just a matter of getting a grip of the rules in 15s, and with game plans being so structured it is about understanding what is happening on the flip chart in team meetings.

"He also fits in well with everything that happens within a team outside of the pitch. You never have to tiptoe around him."

Mohammed, who was a junior footballer with Dubai Club before his love of "rough games" turned him to rugby, is happy to wait his turn for a starting berth in the national team.

"The other guys are all more experienced than me," he said. "We are a team, and when the coach sees my ability I will get my chance.

"There is no rush, I am waiting."

After all but safeguarding their place in the top flight of Asian rugby via their win over Kazakhstan, the UAE face Japan, the continent's leading rugby nation, in Dubai next Friday.

pradley@thenational.ae