Jonathan Greenwood will win his first international cap in a friendly against Tunisia.
Lesson from rugby great Leota fresh in mind of UAE youngster
DUBAI // The latest new era of UAE rugby begins Friday when they face Tunisia with a national team comprising 10 debutants, including a 21-year-old front-row forward fished out of the second tier of domestic competition.
Jonathan Greenwood, a hooker who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, might be forgiven for feeling anxious at the prospect of stepping up from UAE Conference rugby to face a side known for their combativeness.
He does have some experience of playing against an international-class opposite number to fall back on, however. Two seasons ago, while playing for his club side Sharjah Wanderers in the Conference, he packed down against Trevor Leota, the Dubai Wasps powerhouse.
After that, anything else should feel like a breeze.
"He smashed me," Greenwood said of his encounter with the tough as teak former Samoa and London Wasps forward. "He was playing hooker against me last season and it was tough. He is a big guy. Obviously I learnt a lot playing against him - but never again."
Greenwood's rise has been so swift many of his new UAE teammates have not even played against him in domestic competition yet.
However, he has made a strong first impression according to Alistair Thompson, the back-row forward who is the new captain of the national team.
"If he can bring the way he trains to how he plays then he is certainly going to be an asset," said Thompson, the Abu Dhabi Harlequins No 8.
"He is fit and physical, and looks very hungry to succeed. Combining all those assets bodes well for our team."
It is a marker of Greenwood's youth that he only just escapes having to call his captain "sir". He first learnt the sport when he attended British School Al Khubairat, the Abu Dhabi school where Thompson has taught for the past four years. The hooker, who is of English and Filipino heritage, then moved to Wales before returning to the Gulf, making his bow in senior men's rugby while living in Doha.
"I just want to go out there and enjoy myself," said Greenwood, who represented the Arabian Gulf at age-group level. It is not like I just turned up - I got called up. They must have some faith in me, so I am going on their word and seeing how well I can do."
Greenwood's national call up is a credit to his club side. He will become the first Sharjah Wanderers player to represent the UAE.
"We are all very proud of Jonny, coming from where he has come from, and hopefully where he is potentially going," said Shane Breen, the Sharjah Wanderers manager.
"He is a class act and has pretty much been our player of the season for the past two years. He is one of the most consistent players.
"He jokes about worrying about facing the likes of [Leota] but he relishes the challenge. He is not a small guy and he can handle himself with the best of them."
Emirati in line for debut as Exiles flanker returns to national side
Such is the diversity in the national team, the UAE will be represented this weekend by an Emirati who only took up the game three years ago, and an Australian expatriate who has been absent from the international game for the same length of time.
Mohammed Al Sulaiman will make his debut on the wing as part of a highly talented new-look back line for the Test in Tunisia.
"It will be a great feeling," the 22-year-old Dubai Wasp said of the prospect of singing the national anthem before his first international match. "Representing your country makes you proud. It means you have to do something, to have an effect, to repay what they have done." Al Sulaiman is the latest of a raft of Emirati players to emerge from Dubai Wasps.
He initially converted to the sport after playing representative volleyball for the UAE, and has played for the national sevens side.
His hasty rise from novice to international is in stark contrast to that of Brett Williams, the Dubai Exiles flanker, who wins his first UAE cap as part of the back row.
Williams was part of the Arabian Gulf side who won promotion back to the top flight of Asian competition via wins over Thailand and Chinese Taipei in 2009.
Injury and work commitments have meant he has been absent from the international stage since, and he is keen to make up for lost time now.
"It is obviously going to be tough, against Japan and Hong Kong [in the Asian Five Nations], but I am looking forward to seeing how I go against the best teams in Asia," Williams said.
"Back in Australia, you don't really get these chances unless you are playing for the country, so it is good to be able to travel around and match yourself against the best and see how you fare."
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