x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Duncan Hall will cast net wide to put UAE rugby on world map

Considering 'most coaching jobs are steps in the unknown', the new manager feels his task is not as daunting as it may look. Also: Sports round-up audio

Among the key targets for Duncan Hall are UAE’s growth in stature as a top Asian team and speeding up the development and number of Emiratis involved in the game.
Among the key targets for Duncan Hall are UAE’s growth in stature as a top Asian team and speeding up the development and number of Emiratis involved in the game.

Duncan Hall, the man charged with piloting the advance of rugby in this country, lists "travel" as one of his interests in his biography on LinkedIn.

Which is a stroke of luck. At the weekend, the former Australia lock forward flew to Bangkok in charge of a sevens squad comprising mostly Emiratis, complemented by a Sri Lankan, a Kenyan and a South African.

He was still acclimatising to his new life in Dubai, a place he only visited for the first time when he moved here last month to take up the newly created job of performance manager for the UAE Rugby Association.

There are trips to Korea and Japan on the agenda in the coming months, too.

If he was expecting to find rugby's mainstream, he took a wrong turn. When he left his native Australia to take up this job, he would have been advised to pack a few different copies of Lonely Planet, in addition to his tracksuit and rugby boots.

"Most coaching jobs are [a step into the unknown] unless you have been in some succession plan where you have stepped up," he said.

Now aged 55, Hall might be forgiven for pointing out things were rather different in his day. He played at a time when international rugby was both amateur and insular.

His 15 Test matches for the Wallabies took in just one venue outside of Australasia, with his last match against Italy being about as close as it got to getting off the beaten track.

Happily, his passport has had a severe work out since. Most recently, he was the head coach of Indonesia, further down the Asia's competition pyramid from the UAE's position in the top flight.

Part of his job there was to assimilate indigenous Indonesians into the national team alongside expatriate players from better established rugby playing nations.

His Indonesia experience will be a valuable reference point in his new role, where there is a significant onus on readying Emirati players, from a culture which is new to the game, for the full national team.

He should also be able to draw knowledge from another of his previous positions, that of head coach of the USA, a decade ago.

There the sport was battling for recognition against better established rivals, and the country's small pool of players were difficult to monitor. There are definite parallels to the UAE.

"When I went to America I had to meet a whole lot of new people, find out where the players came from, when it was a decentralised system," he said.

"They were all over the world, and all over America. In the UAE, while we complain about the distance to Abu Dhabi, it is not too difficult. It is still a car drive."

As the UAE's first permanent, full-time coach, Hall has been set two main targets.

First, and most pressing, is to keep the senior nation team in the top rank of Asian competition, the Asian Five Nations.

Last year, Bruce Birtwistle, his predecessor, guided the UAE to third in the Top Five in their first campaign as a new side, following the break up of the Arabian Gulf union at the end of 2010.

His second imperative is speeding the development of the small core of Emiratis who are involved in the game here.

He has stated that everyone who is eligible is in contention for the representative side, no matter their previous.

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"It doesn't matter who has done what historically, you have to play well in club rugby, come to training, keep improving, as I want everyone to become a better player," Hall said. "I will show you how to do that, so the ball is in their court."

After one competition in harness, Hall has already had some silver to savour. The UAE Shaheen, the Emirati development team, won the Shield competition in Thailand, after they beat Philippines in the final.

They may have fallen a fair way short in the main competition, but the Shield win was reward for persistence.

Staying power is not something that has always been associated with Emirati rugby players. While many have tried the game over the past five years, only a select few have stuck with it.

"That was a long time back, and I witnessed it," said Qais Al Dhalai, the deputy secretary general of the UAE RA, who was one of the key decision makers in the recruitment of Hall.

"Now, even if they are defeated heavily, the next day they come back to train. They might get demotivated by the result, but they know they have the support from us.

"Previously there was no governing body to take care of the Emirati players. Now we are here and they know that."

HALL GOES DOWN MEMORY LANE

Toughest opponent

Anyone who wears a New Zealand jersey. In those days, they were all tough, but Frank Oliver was one of the toughest. Like me, he was not a super tall guy, so he had to graft and do other parts of the game.

Most talented teammate
Mark Ella. There is a smorgasbord of choice, but Mark was a great player – even better when he played with his brothers, Glen and Gary. He was a great support player of the ball, and would always pop up in the right place.
Playing career highlight The first time I played a Test, at Suva in Fiji in 1980, was the biggest. It means you have made it. The first one is the greatest and all the rest are bonuses. Later that season I played against New Zealand five times in a month.

Coaching career highlight

We won my first two games in charge of America, and they thought I was the best thing since sliced bread then. For satisfaction, Indonesia beating Pakistan 20-19 in 2011 was great because you knew we had come from such a small base.

Biggest disappointment

Coaching New South Wales against Queensland at Ballymore in 2001. The game was there to win, but the guys didn’t. Later that year we were annihilated by Canterbury, but that did not hurt so much because Canterbury were just better.

pradley@thenational.ae