The Heineken Cup winning hooker Trevor Leota will feature for Transguard Toa Dubai, the Gulf's newest rugby club.
Leota, the human wrecking ball
DUBAI // The recession has nothing on this. It is a recruitment manager's worst nightmare. Last season the global financial slowdown was sent to test the playing resources of the region's expatriate-dominated rugby clubs. Numbers dwindled, but the clubs muddled through regardless. Now there is a new crisis on the horizon. Every time the fixtures computer throws up a game against Transguard Toa Dubai, the Gulf's newest club, opposing captains had better prepare for a rash of telephone calls.
All to the effect of: "Oh, I can't make it actually, my dodgy hamstring is playing up again," or, "Work need me in Tokyo for the weekend, really sorry". Toa get their name from a Maori term meaning warrior, reflecting the side's largely Polynesian make-up. Fittingly, their maiden Emirates League challenge will be headed up by one of the game's most iconic hardmen, Trevor Leota, a Heineken Cup-winning hooker who spent much his professional career banned from tackling practice by club coaches because he hit too hard, even in training. The Emirates League is the second tier competition below the Gulf Premiership.
"I've always played rugby for fun, and I'm looking forward to mixing playing in Dubai with development," said Leota, 34, who will dovetail his playing duties with his role as scrum coach. "Of course, it goes without saying I'm looking forward to the contact as well." When Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, was in charge of the London Wasps side which won the 2004 Heineken Cup, he called Leota the best hooker in the world.
In the fortnight before that final against Toulouse, Gatland also detailed the club's conditioning coach to keep him under 24-hour surveillance to stop him gorging on fried chicken. "He will keep playing rugby until he can't move any more, he loves the game so much," predicted Andrew Fa'avale, who will be reunited with his former Auckland front-row colleague tonight when Toa play Riyadh in the Gulf Bowl at The Sevens in Dubai (KO 9pm).
"He played in the French Top 14 last season, but finished there to come over here. Since then he has been with his family in Australia, and he is still fit. He was playing last week for Penrith in Sydney." Leota is scheduled to arrive from Australia this morning. His new side have had precious little practice time together, bar the odd run out at Zabeel Park, but they remain confident of their chances after being inducted to the league this season.
"It's a long season," added Fa'avale. "Hopefully we will all gel, but I think we will have to rely on our experience for a little while." The new club is an intriguing hybrid of players - the former Gulf captains Paul Austin and Adrian Kerr have also shelved their retirement plans in favour of a return to the field - as well as emerging youngsters, including five Emiratis in the 22-man first team squad.
Toa was set up by John Mamea-Wilson, a Dubai-based coach who also played Test rugby for Samoa, with the ultimate aim of it being peopled entirely by UAE nationals. He coached the first all-Emirati side to play at the Dubai Rugby Sevens, back in 2005. The team, which was originally known as Dubai Falcons, have gone through many guises since, and they will retain their latest monicker, Al Ahli Knights, when they take part in sevens and tens events. "We set up the Falcons with a five-year plan to get Emirati kids playing regular 15-a-side rugby," said Mamea-Wilson. "We are one year ahead of that."
The Toa ranks are further bolstered by up-and-coming youngsters from the Elite Sporting Academy (ESA), which is based at Repton School in Dubai. Apollo Perelini, the former rugby league player who is in charge of rugby at ESA, has so far spurned advances to coax him back onto the field to play alongside his charges. "I would rather coach than play," said Perelini, who played at the 1991 rugby union World Cup for Samoa.
"I am not really a true believer in the player/coach role. You can say something as a coach and you don't have to worry about going on there and stuffing up." Mamea-Wilson is confident Perelini will don his playing boots again at some point during the campaign, "once he sees how much fun we are all having". If he does, Toa will line up with a player who was known as 'The Terminator' during his professional days, alongside Leota, the human wrecking ball. Sick-note, anyone?