x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Birtwistle to go out on a high note

The UAE national rugby team have tobeat Hong Kong to finish second in the HSBC Asian Five Nations.

Bruce Birtwistle, the outgoing UAE coach, standing, looks on as his team train at The Sevens in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
Bruce Birtwistle, the outgoing UAE coach, standing, looks on as his team train at The Sevens in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

Dubai // The UAE's representative players are becoming conditioned to entering the decisive final match of their season with the task at hand clouded by an extra emotional incentive.

Twelve months ago, the Arabian Gulf needed to bridge a significant gap in the world rankings to overcome South Korea, in order to safeguard their place in the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top 5.

The fact it was the last time the collective regional side would play a competitive 15-a-side match together meant many of those involved were misty-eyed at some point during proceedings.

Gulf players from the past were invited to hand out the shirts they used to wear to their present incumbents, and photos of the previous vintages were pinned to the dressing room walls.

Buoyed by the occasion, the Gulf achieved arguably their finest win, defeating the Koreans and consigning them to relegation instead.

Having assumed their position in the top tier of Asian rugby, the new UAE side are faced with a similar proposition in Hong Kong this weekend.

Bruce Birtwistle, the national team's coach, is set to return to his native New Zealand next month.

The Aucklander is held in great esteem by his players, and they will want to secure second place - their stated aim at the start of the competition - as a parting gift to their coach, as much as for their own satisfaction.

"He instilled a brotherhood in our team, and a lot of things that were not really there prior to him being there," said Sean Hurley, the side's longest-serving player.

"He brought great insight into the game situation, as well, and took the whole game here a step further."

Hurley is well-placed to judge Birtwistle's merits, having played under numerous coaches after first representing the Gulf in 2005.

It was Birtwistle who convinced him to swap from his customary position of scrum-half to play on the wing, and he has been ever-present in this campaign.

"He has been a big supporter," Hurley said. "Bruce is a very loyal coach. He picks you for the reasons he sees in you, and he sticks with that.

"If you have one bad game, he still sticks with you, which is very important in a coach as it builds the confidence of the players."

One of Birtwistle's greatest successes has been the way he has managed the transition from the Gulf to the UAE.

The turnover in players has been extensive because of the move. Arguably, the greatest loss was that of Jonny MacDonald, the young scrum-half who was the match-winner when the Gulf beat Hong Kong in Bahrain last year.

Ian Bremner, the chief executive of the Rugby Association, thinks a second-place finish in the Top 5 will be a fine achievement for Birtwistle to sign off with.

"His goal to be the best amateur team in Asia is a super goal, and could be right on for us at this moment in time," Bremner said.

"It would be superb for us as a new union.

"He has been a very significant influence on the national side here. He is an excellent communicator, an excellent man manager, and a guy who has managed the transition from the Gulf side to UAE rugby in very capable fashion.

"One of the significant things that has happened for us has been the emotional buy-in of the players, and their emotional involvement with the country.

"We were very lucky that there was a coach of that calibre around the UAE when he was, in terms of making the strides forward that we have. He has been central to that," he added.

Birtwistle will have to devise a plan to stop Hong Kong's Keith Robertson, who, according to Mike Rehu, the Star Sports commentator, has "gone from being a young mercurial pivot to the pilot who navigates the big ships and speed boats that run off him".