x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Experience wasted on old in UAE rugby

The UAE needs to focus its attention on blooding young players, writes Paul Radley.

Ross Combe, centre, enjoyed his debut for the UAE in the Cup of Nations. Mike Young / The National
Ross Combe, centre, enjoyed his debut for the UAE in the Cup of Nations. Mike Young / The National

The search for morsels of optimism from another brutal Cup of Nations campaign for the UAE national team is not an easy one.

At least, you could say, it was an experience. With a raft of senior players who would otherwise have been first picks for the team opting out of the tournament, there were a variety of new players given their first taste of rugby at this level.

Each is now three Test matches better off in terms of experience. Whether they will be around even this time next year, however – let alone become the pillars of a bright new future for UAE rugby – is a moot point.

The fact the vast majority of national team players have to wait for three years before they become eligible for selection means the UAE team usually have an average age far in excess of their rivals.

The same was the case in the Cup of Nations. While Zimbabwe, for instance, travelled to Dubai with 23 players under 22 years old, the UAE were handing debuts to players the wrong side of 30 – and one who is well over 40.

Ironically, the new old guard performed impressively, but it is hardly a sustainable selection policy.

Zimbabwe were not the only ones with a genuinely youthful new broom. Hong Kong gave opportunities to a host of new backline players, on account of the fact they will need them next year when their sevens programme goes into overdrive.

Belgium, the eventual champions, are clearly good at it, too. Alan Williams, their full-back, is already the leading point scorer in Belgium's rugby history. Yet he only turned 25 on the day of the second game.

The UAE's youth cupboard is not entirely bare. Jonathan Greenwood, the Abu Dhabi-born hooker, continued his emergence as a front-row forward of substance last week.

Ross Combe was a great find during the Cup of Nations. The 19-year-old Al Ain Ambler should be a nailed on starter for next year's Asian Five Nations, if only for the longevity he can offer the national team.

Meanwhile, Quihen Marais is another product of Al Ain who is tied to play for the national team. He, more than anyone else, represents the future of UAE rugby.

He is studying in South Africa, but the powers that be must find the funds to fly him back here next time the national team have an assignment if they are serious about building a competitive team for the future.

pradley@thenational.ae

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