Rugby stars follow well-trodden path at Sharjah Wanderers
SHARJAH // Hidden away on an unmade road with barely a landmark nearby, in the middle of an emirate that is hardly known for its rugby, Sharjah Wanderers should really be a wasteland for the sport.
Yet the atmospheric, old club has an enviable pedigree for hosting greats of the game.
The list of all-stars who have played at the Wanderers will have another pair of luminous additions on Friday.
Carlos Spencer, the former New Zealand fly-half, and Conrad Jantjes, the former South Africa fullback, will turn out in the Sharjah 10s as guests of a charity side.
You may expect Sharjah's rugby folk to feel a little star-struck. Not likely, though, given Spencer and Jantjes are just following a path already trodden by the likes of Christian Cullen, Francois Steyn, Danny Care and Cian Healy in the recent past.
Cullen, the great All Blacks wing, was a winner with Toa Dubai at the 2010 Sharjah 10s.
Three years on Spencer, Cullen's former international teammate, will be looking to imitate his success as part of the Early Learning Centre for Down Syndrome Awareness (ELC) side.
Spencer and Jantjes are in the UAE to promote the Fighting Chance Dubai boxing evening in which they are competing, at Dubai Sports City in May.
"Carlos hasn't played rugby for a few years, but he's been boxing so he is the fittest and the lightest he's ever been," said Mamea-Wilson, the organiser of the ELC side.
"This will be his return to the pitch and he is very keen. Christian told them he had a good time over here and that he won in the final so they want to do the same."
The cast list of players who have appeared at the Wanderers is all the more remarkable given that, 10 years ago, many amateur players in the region refused to play at the Sharjah 10s because the pitches were sand.
Now the facilities at the club are a match for most clubs in the UAE, thanks in part to the upgrades which took place ahead of the staging of the 2006 Under 19 World Championship.
Along with the old Dubai Exiles ground in Al Awir, the Wanderers hosted a competition which involved young players such as Will Genia, Dan Cole, Care, Danny Cipriani, Steyn and Healy.
The annual 10-a-side competition in Sharjah clashes with the grand finale to the region's domestic season 170kms away in Abu Dhabi on Friday, with the Harlequins meeting Jebel Ali Dragons in the West Asia play-off final.
However, the organisers at the Wanderers believe they have some pulling power of their own.
"Unfortunately the holders of the trophy, Jebel Ali Dragons, have an important game of their own and won't be attending but the tournament is full and competition is going to be fiercer than ever," said Shane Breen of the Wanderers.
"This exceptional turnout of stars is fantastic and aside from the obvious nerves about coming up against them, it'll be a once in a lifetime opportunity for players."
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