x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Passionate support the highlight as UAE rugby fall to South Korea

Harry Woods scores lone try for home side as beaten 75-10 in their Asian Five Nations clash at Al Ain Ramblers.

Harry Woods, centre, scored the UAE's lone try in their loss to South Korea.
Harry Woods, centre, scored the UAE's lone try in their loss to South Korea.

UAE 10 South Korea 75

UAE
Try: Woods
Con: Combe
Pen: Combe

South Korea
Tries: GM Kim 4, Jegal 2, Kwon, Hwang, JM Kim, Yoo
Cons: YH Oh 7, JY Oh
Pens: YH Oh 2, JY Oh

Man of the match: Gwong Min Kim (South Korea)

AL AIN // This was novel. Hundreds of people watching the UAE play Test match rugby on the lush green fields of Al Ain.

An Emirati cheer troupe leading the support with impromptu song, beating the drum for the national team both metaphorically and physically, and because they wanted to, not because they were paid to be here.

And yet, for all that things are changing in the sport in this part of the world, the more they remain the same. For instance, the sales directors, army soldiers and chartered surveyors who represent the country at rugby continue to find the going more and more difficult against the professionals and semi-pros in Asia's top competition.

South Korea were simply bigger, stronger and better than their hosts were. Which feels like a depressingly constant theme, and one without a clear resolution.

The national team did have small morsels to celebrate. Harry Woods, the Dubai Hurricanes centre, made a try-scoring debut on his belated bow in international rugby.

This day may have been a long time coming for him, five years after he would have been an international for Singapore were it not for serious injury, but he is clearly to the manner born.

He scored the UAE's lone try and was the most potent attacking threat throughout. Given that he might have thought his chance at Test match rugby was long since gone, his is a neat example for the UAE to cling to: if you stick with something for long enough, class will out in the end.

"I was nervous, actually," Woods, 33, said. "I was thinking, three or four years ago, I may have [had a chance to play internationally] and I was younger then.

"I have waited a few years for this but it has come. To get across the line was good for the boys and after that we started to play quite well and it got us excited."

When Woods made the intuitive interception to score the national team's lone try, it coincided with the group of supporters, made up of the country's leading Emirati players, plus their friends and family, turning up the volume in the stand.

The time and resources UAE Rugby has invested in developing the game among the indigenous population may not have much hard evidence of success at senior level just yet.

However, it has had other by-products. Here, for example, were a group of people who are just as passionate about the country as they are about the sport. That has not always been the case in this part of the world.

The conductor of the cheer squad was Majid Al Balooshi, the teenager who, last year, was the first product of the UAE's Emirati schools rugby programme to play for the UAE Shaheen side.

He implored his compatriots into song with such vigour that veins were popping up in his neck and he was hoarse by the end of it.

Clearly, the players wearing UAE shirts on the field may not look like them and may not speak Arabic, but they are representing the country and that was good enough for these Emiratis.

So vocal were they, many of the rugby regulars who made up the expatriate majority of the crowd turned their backs on the game to watch them instead. They took photographs of them, too.

If you have ever had the privilege of watching football in this country, you will know that people-watching at the ground can be just as captivating as the match itself.

Ditto for rugby on this occasion. "It was great support, and it is a great advertisement for Al Ain rugby," Woods said.

"It was great to hear that, but we needed to keep them up and it was a pity we couldn't for the whole game."

The hefty defeat, which was brought about thanks to incisive running by South Korea's outside backs, with winger Kim Gwong-min touching down four tries, leaves the UAE precariously placed when it comes to remaining in this division next season.

They now face mission impossible at home to perennial champions Japan in two weeks' time, then the decisive trip to Philippines on the final day.

"We had high expectations today and you have to go out with that," said Duncan Hall, the UAE performance manager.

"The players have been working really hard, they have been very supportive of everything."

pradley@thenational.ae

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