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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Asian Five Nations: A step backward may help UAE rugby move forward

Dropping out of the top tier could be more of a help than a hurt, comments Paul Radley.
The UAE's Gareth Armstrong tries to advance the ball against the Philippines Volcanoes in their Asian Five Nations closer at Manila on Saturday night.
The UAE's Gareth Armstrong tries to advance the ball against the Philippines Volcanoes in their Asian Five Nations closer at Manila on Saturday night.

So the UAE have been relegated from the top flight of Asian rugby?

Maybe that is not so bad.

With any luck, this demotion will be cathartic, an opportunity to regenerate in an environment more correctly aligned to the actual state of the game here, rather than a delusion of grandeur inherited from the past.

For all it brings to the sport on this continent, the Asian Five Nations is a flawed competition. At least, it is where the UAE is concerned.

For four weeks at the end of the domestic season, players who spend their days sat behind a desk are asked to compete against those who have nothing else to do but train as professionals.

This massive disconnect between the top three nations - Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong - has meant the good people who represent the UAE have been dead men walking for years.

It can never be fun knowing you only have a chance of parity with your opponents in one match per year.

 

Deserving place

The UAE are officially ranked 96th in the world of rugby. There is a mitigating factor behind them being below the likes of Andorra, Vanuatu and Swaziland in the standings.

Full IRB membership was only recently granted, following due process after the dissolution of the Arabian Gulf, the previous governing body here, at the end of 2010.

Are they as bad as 96th in the world? Who knows. Their results do not suggest they are much better, but then it is difficult to tell when all but one match per year is against sides they cannot actually compete with.

The Arabian Gulf, the national team's predecessors, had a win percentage of 52 per cent from the 42 Test matches the collective union played. The UAE's is a pitiful 9.5 per cent.

The national team have only won two Test matches in its two and a half year lifespan. First they beat a Kazakhstan side whose leading players had been denied entry visas, then against the same opposition at 4pm in early Dubai summer a year later.

The return fixture next time may not be too friendly. The Kazakhs, who will be in wait in division one, vowed to host the UAE in Siberia at the next opportunity they got to play them at home.

 

An inconvenient truth

The UAE's presence in the top flight of this competition has always had an awkward look to it, anyway. Next year they will be replaced by Sri Lanka, a side whose home matches attract thousands, as well as regular presidential receptions (handily, their captain is the president's son). That will mean each of the top five sides can count on support numbering in excess of a thousand people for their home matches.

Contrast that with the UAE. When they faced their seminal match against Kazakhstan last year, there were less than 100 people there to watch. It was embarrassing.

 

More forgiving environment

As one former UAE player, who played lots of Test rugby for the Arabian Gulf says, there is great kudos playing international rugby - but you also want to be part of a competitive side.

Too often, it is impossible for the UAE to be so.

Stepping down a division next year may feel like a step back. But at least it will provide some respite. Maybe even the odd winnable match, too.

"You can't get away with mistakes," Harry Woods, the find of this competition for the UAE, said after the 75-10 defeat to South Korea in Al Ain last month.

"You can't get away with being lazy. You have to try to go 120 per cent for the whole game.

"You can put in five minutes and that might be good. But that's not good enough at this level. It is a learning curve for us and we are building."

Hopefully division one will be more forgiving.

 

Re-engage lost generation

So many players have dripped away from the game here and there is an obvious reason for it: losing is no fun.

The reason for the massive disparity in the win-loss ratio of the Arabian Gulf and the UAE is because more top class players were available for selection back then.

It is not solely because they lost a raft of good players based elsewhere in the region after the Gulf collective was disbanded.

That is a double-edged sword, anyway.

Back in those days, the coaches of the representative team used to complain that it was impossible to get all the players together to train at the same place at the same time.

And anyway, there are a number of eligible players here who have stayed away ever since becoming disillusioned at the way the transition from Gulf to UAE was handled.

At best, the powers that be here were negligent in allowing the divisions to arise. At worst, they threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Duncan Hall, the performance manager, inherited that problem when he arrived at the start of last year.

It is good to see he has managed to coax high class players of the ilk of Jamie Clarke and Andy Russell back for this tournament. There are plenty more still out there, though.

 

The promise of 2009

A side representing this region has played in the second tier before, after the Gulf were relegated from the first edition of the Asian Five Nations in 2008.

And that certainly was not a bad thing. The tournament spent in the first division in 2009 bears only happy memories for those involved. The Gulf easily dispatched Thailand and Chinese Taipei. The team played with verve.

In the final, a veteran prop forward was trading passes with a 17-year-old winger of Arabic heritage. The sun was shining and all was well with the world.

The great pity is that few of the bright talents blooded in that side, when stakes were lower and matches were winnable, remain today.

Khaled Helal, that teenaged winger, has been rarely spotted since, after he went abroad to study.

Jonny Macdonald, the lavishly gifted scrum-half, cut his ties with the UAE by the eminently laudable means of earning a call-up for Scotland's sevens team instead.

Taif Al Delamie, the captain when the division one title was earned, is still a stand out on the domestic scene but is having to requalify for national duty, as he is an Omani national.

The talent drain is something that must not happen again next year if rugby here is genuinely going to evolve for the better.

Young talents with UAE in their hearts like Jonny Greenwood, Malcolm Greenslade and David Knight need to be the basis of the national team for years to come.

Next term, they might even get the chance to savour a few wins for once. Imagine that.

 

pradley@thenational.ae

 

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