x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Foundations laid for UAE rugby

With the UAE finishing third in the Asian Five Nations tournament, the team has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. But here is also lots of work ahead, too.

The UAE missed out on their stated aim of finishing second in the HSBC Asian Five Nations, which concluded last weekend, but third place still represented a solid starting point for a side making their debut on the international stage.

However, they have left themselves plenty of room for improvement. Their lone victory in the competition, against Kazakhstan, was certainly a rousing one. But after the euphoria washed away even the players themselves rated their performance at a six-and-a-half out of 10.

Two crushing defeats to conclude the competition, forgiven against Japan, less so against Hong Kong, left a sour aftertaste.

No one was left in doubt that much needs to be done if the UAE are to improve next year, when the competition is likely to be more competitive than ever.

With Korea, regenerated after an unexpected relegation last year, likely to replace Sri Lanka, the battle to stay in the division, let alone better their third-place finish, will be hard.

While the new board continue to plot the game's advance off the field, some specifics for the national team need to be solved in the next 11 months.

Full-time head coach

With just four official Tests per year, the national team have been able to get away with employing a part-time coach to date.

Bruce Birtwistle did a fine job of juggling his job as a business unit manager with his duties within UAE rugby.

However, the outgoing coach believes the Rugby Association would be advised to appoint a full-time successor to him, with their remit not confined to the national team.

"There is a big gap between our club rugby and this level, and you do need someone who is going to drive your development programmes on a full-time basis," Birtwistle said.

Ageing squad

Being so heavily reliant on expatriates, who need to have lived here for three years before they are eligible to represent the country, has always meant the average age of the representative team has been unnaturally high.

Mark Gathercole, the most-capped player for the Gulf, played into his 40s, and he rarely stood out on account of his age.

The first UAE side was based on a solid contingent of thirtysomethings, too.

The likes of Mike Cox-Hill, the captain; Mike Riley, Steve Smith and Sean Hurley were among the most reliable players, but the UAE needs to be readying some long-term successors for them.

"We've got a lot of new boys this year," Cox-Hill said.

"I think we've got about 10 guys who have played about three games at this level now. With the experience that we've got from this campaign, it only bodes well for the future."

Fly-half

Jon Grady did an admirable job at No 10 for the UAE, bearing in mind that he is a centre.

The lack of an established fly-half has been a recurring theme for years.

In the previous two seasons, the Gulf tried to convert Luke Sinclair - a rugby league player - and Duncan Murray - who prefers inside-centre - into fly-halves. Neither was the long-term answer.

Another option was Paul Beard. He played the position for the Gulf in the past, but the Abu Dhabi-born player is now lost to the UAE, having opted to represent his adopted Qatar instead.

Happily, this is one problem which will be easy to solve.

Murray Strang, the Abu Dhabi Harlequins fly-half, qualifies soon.

As the best tactical No 10 in the Gulf, and with a strong boot, he should be immediately brought into the side, and will provide the backline with the direction they need.

Backline potency

Fly-halves in the UAE are like buses: you wait ages for a proper No 10 to arrive, then two come along at once. Strang's eligibility coincides with that of Andy Russell, the Dubai Dragons player, who is also an outstanding fly-half.

Two into one No 10 shirt does not go, but Russell, a multi-skilled sportsman whose day job includes teaching cricket, will be able to fit anywhere into the backline. His creativity will be a major boost, as the backs endured lean pickings in the tournament just gone.

Monsoon rains against Sri Lanka in the opening draw meant the backline were essentially redundant. The win over Kazakhstan was earned up front, while against Japan, possession was a pipedream.

When the big test came against Hong Kong, the backline were taken to school by their hosts' speedy young backs. With Russell in harness, the attack will be greatly bolstered.

 

pradley@thenational.ae