x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

English patient ready to take Dubai by storm

Anyone who considers the World Cup Sevens to be short on star quality should consider this: there is an injury-plagued English fly-half named Jonny ready and waiting to show everyone exactly what they have been missing.

Jonny MacDonald , left, could be leaving his opponents for dead in the  World Cup Sevens.
Jonny MacDonald , left, could be leaving his opponents for dead in the World Cup Sevens.

Anyone who considers the World Cup Sevens to be short on star quality should consider this: there is an injury-plagued English fly-half named Jonny ready and waiting to show everyone exactly what they have been missing. Like the 15-a-side World Cup winner Wilkinson, the Arabian Gulf's star-turn, Jonny MacDonald, has a penchant for obscure, rugby- induced injuries. It is telling that one of his heroes is the perennially crocked England No 10.

"He always comes back," says MacDonald, 20, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. "Even though he constantly gets injured, he always comes back." Anything his idol has done, MacDonald can better. When Wilkinson was forced to take three months out of the international game with a lacerated kidney, MacDonald had to miss eight weeks of school with a bruised brain. It happened at the age of 17 during a season in which he suffered six concussions. All of which put paid to his hopes of securing a professional contract at Saracens, the English Premiership club, whose academy he was with at the time.

"I had an MRI and I got diagnosed with a bruised brain," recalls MacDonald. He attended Al Khubairat school in Abu Dhabi before moving to the UK at the age of 11. "I had to have eight weeks off school. I was a mess. I was at boarding school and my mum, who was out here, had to fly over to look after me. "I was in bed for five weeks, not sleeping, and the slightest things would tire me out. It was quite a worrying phase of my life."

In the claustrophobic confines of a brain-scanner, he began to contemplate whether professional rugby was the life for him. It was a tough call, and his mind was eventually made up for him when Saracens let him go. "On the back of quite a few injuries - I had just broken my ribs - I wasn't training that much, and they obviously couldn't keep me on because I was using up their resources," he said. "I don't hold any grudges, but it did hurt me. I was only a young kid and when it happened, it crushed me.

"But that helped me. I learnt I have got to enjoy the game more. At the time, I was always worrying about my performance. Now, I am out there to enjoy the game and to enjoy playing with my mates." Then all the old feelings resurfaced. What about that long-forgotten dream of touching down a try in front of 50,000 people? And not just one. At the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens last November, the hitherto unknown MacDonald touched down five times as the Arabian Gulf finally showed their home crowd that they really can play rugby.

It was a special feeling for a player who - unbeknown to his team-mates - celebrated his 20th birthday the day before the tournament kicked-off. MacDonald used to skip school and fly back every year for Dubai's biggest sporting event. The Exiles was his Twickenham, and he when he finally earned his international bow, it was on home soil. "Playing in front of that crowd [last November] was unreal," he said. "The buzz we got from being the home team at The Sevens was good, but at the World Cup I think it will be better.

"When it is the sevens, everyone is there for their own local team as well, for the Hurricanes, for Abu Dhabi or the Dubai teams. "This time, that isn't going on. It is just us. Everyone from the Gulf who is going to watch it will be behind us. Hopefully we will have an even bigger fan-base than last time. "It makes it worth all the hard work we put in. I can still remember the Scotland game, when the commentator said, 'Who's cheering for Scotland, and who's cheering for the Gulf?' I got goosebumps. That was an amazing experience."

@Email:pradley@thenational.ae