x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Birtwistle to move on from UAE rugby

The New Zealander and national coach will return to his homeland after a short but impressive stint of only four international games.

Birtwistle has ushered in some young faces and has brought about changes in the club level game.
Birtwistle has ushered in some young faces and has brought about changes in the club level game.

DUBAI // The UAE will be looking for a new head coach after just four matches as an international team, after Bruce Birtwistle confirmed Saturday's match in Hong Kong will be his last assignment with the national team.

The popular New Zealander, who has been a key figure in establishing the UAE as a respected side in Asian rugby, plans to return to his homeland next month.

Birtwistle moved to the UAE to take up a job as a business unit manager for a marine company three years ago, and only chanced upon the job after meeting a former opponent from his playing days in

Auckland while in Dubai.

"It has been a really enjoyable time and I have met some really good people," Birtwistle said.

"When I moved out here I always expected to be involved in rugby in some way, even from a spectator's point of view, watching club rugby."

Birtwistle took charge of the representative side ahead of the 2009 Division One campaign, after Wayne Marsters, the former Abu Dhabi captain who now coaches Iran, stepped down.

He landed the role after being recommended by his fellow Aucklander, Mike Lunjevich, the former coach of the Arabian Gulf sevens team.

Birtwistle's impact was immediate, guiding the Gulf straight back to the top tier at the first attempt, and blooding a raft of new young players in the process.

A greater achievement came the following summer when his side cemented their place in top tier of Asian rugby, thanks to home wins over Hong Kong and Korea.

Since then, he has guided the national team through the transition from the Arabian Gulf to the UAE this year, having reapplied successfully for the role of head coach of the newly-created side.

"I think there have been improvements in the level of club rugby," Birtwistle said of the changes in the landscape of domestic rugby over the past three years.

"I am not saying it is where it needs to be. There is lots of room for improvement, but the quality of club rugby is improving.

"From an administrative point of view, the UAE is still very, very young, but in a short period of time we are still performing at the top end of the Asian Five Nations, a premier division, and being

competitive most of the time."

The UAE Rugby Association will be hard pushed to find a successor as well-credentialed as Birtwistle, according to the longest serving player in representative rugby.

"I have never played for a better coach in my time in Gulf," Sean Hurley, who first played for the Gulf side in 2004, said.

"He just knows how to press the right buttons to get the very best out of everyone."

The coach does not want his departure to overshadow the task at hand, namely securing second-place in the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top 5 with victory in Hong Kong.

"We are just trying to get that victory against Hong Kong," Birtwistle said. "In their minds they will be looking for revenge for the loss they suffered against us last year."

 

pradley@thenational.ae