x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dubai Sevens: Exiles forward stands on threshold of family dynasty

Teenage standout JJ Fanucci is following in his mother's footsteps, finds Paul Radley,, with the option of playing for three nations.

Once JJ Fanucci of Dubai Exiles (left, in blue) plays at the international level, he will be only the second in a family dynasty to do so in the region after his mother Candy, who played for the Arabian Gulf.
Once JJ Fanucci of Dubai Exiles (left, in blue) plays at the international level, he will be only the second in a family dynasty to do so in the region after his mother Candy, who played for the Arabian Gulf.

A teenage Dubai Exiles forward will continue to advertise his international credentials via the Gulf Men's League competition at the Sevens this weekend.

If he does graduate from representative age-group rugby to the Test arena, JJ Fanucci will complete a incomparable family double - by following his mother into the international game.

Candy Fanucci played for the Arabian Gulf women's team at tournaments in Hong Kong, Thailand and Qatar four years ago, before the multi-state union was replaced by the UAE.

Now her son JJ, 19, has been invited to train with the national team ahead of next month's Cup of Nations.

There has been only one other family dynasty in international rugby here to date.

Haydn Palmer followed in the footsteps of his father Nigel when he played for the Arabian Gulf at the 2010 Dubai Sevens.

It is still not certain Fanucci will be following his mother's allegiance directly, even though he has been invited to attend the seniors training ahead of the Cup of Nations, an XVs tournament in which the UAE face Belgium, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong.

He is also qualified to represent South Africa, where he plans to go and study in rugby-mad Stellenbosch, and Italy.

The Italian option is a tantalising one for him, as the national team would be slightly more accessible than the Springboks, as well as offering a professional career in the game which is not viable here.

As such, he is as yet undecided as to whether to take up the option to represent the UAE, where he has lived for nearly 12 years and where he has learnt and played all his rugby.

"I would love to play any international rugby," said the Exiles loose-forward. "I have thought about it for quite a while and I still don't know what I would do [if the offer came]."

He has made rapid progress since he first started out in men's rugby playing for Toa Dubai at the start of last season, aged 17.

Even though his new team, the Exiles, had a fitful UAE Premiership campaign, Fanucci's performances on the field did not go unnoticed.

When they lost in Abu Dhabi against the Harlequins, for example, he was outstanding. Not a bad effort, considering the young flanker had already played an age-group match earlier in the day because the Exiles Under 18s side were short of players.

The stamina required for such a feat is a clue to the main strength of his game, as an indefatigable open-side flanker.

"It has definitely been a step up," the former English College schoolboy said of men's rugby as opposed to the age-group game.

"I struggled with the physical side when I first came into it aged 17, but there are loads of different ways an open-side can play.

"They have moulded my game around my speed. I will never be the biggest man on the field but hopefully I will be the fastest.

"I try to get to the breakdown as quick as I can, and after 20 minutes the bigger guys can be puffing - then size isn't really an issue."

He is looking forward to testing himself in South Africa's foremost finishing school, in Stellenbosch, when he heads there to study.

And there will be some familiar faces when he arrives. Stephan Venter, the son of the Exiles coach Jan, and Quihen Marais are both products of UAE youth rugby who are currently studying in South Africa.

"Even talented players here are on the back foot because the standard there is so much higher because there are so much more players to choose from in South Africa," said Fanucci's mother Candy.

"The likes of Stephan, Quihen and JJ put in so much effort to reach that level, because this is the path they have chosen."

In the meantime, Fanucci Jr's focus is on success with the Exiles this weekend.

Dubai's oldest club have been out of the winner's circle at the Sevens for a while now.

They last won when the tournament was still played at their old home ground in Al Awir, back in 2006.

In the UAE Sevens Series over the past two weeks, though, they have hinted that they have the potential to break their hoodoo.

"Guys started believing we can beat these teams like [the defending champions Jebel Ali] Dragons," said Fanucci, who will play at hooker for the Exiles this weekend.

"We have got the skill, we have got the fitness. It is possible."

pradley@thenational.ae

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