Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 September 2019

'It is a game for everyone': Meet the team from the UAE heading to the Touch World Cup

Three teams representing Middle East Touch will play at the leading competition for the non-contact version of rugby, starting on Monday, April 29 in Kuala Lumpur

It is not unusual for representative sports teams from this region to be a diverse mix of backgrounds. But few will ever have been more eclectic than the squad travelling to Malaysia to play at the Touch World Cup later this month.

Three teams representing Middle East Touch will play at the leading competition for the non-contact version of rugby, starting on Monday, April 29 in Kuala Lumpur.

Their tour party will include a kick-boxer. A Briton who once played for Singapore at a netball World Cup. A former Olympic footballer. And a New Zealander who once represented Irish Students at rugby, before later going on to be awarded the Fiji Order of Merit.

When it comes to rugby, Jeremy Manning has been there, done that, got the singlet.

He performed a haka against the All Blacks while playing for Munster, was in a Heineken Cup-winning squad, and, most recently, was made an Officer of the Order of Fiji for his role in helping the country win the sevens gold medal at the Rio Olympics.

He was the kicking coach of that Fiji side. Now he plays a sport in which there is no kicking at all.

He will be playing and coaching in the 30s and over mixed side representing the country at the Touch World Cup in Malaysia.

“It is a game for everyone,” Manning, 33, said of touch.

“In rugby, you need to be big and strong. In touch, you can have the leanest guys, like a greyhound, who have ridiculous skills, can run at speed, pass.

“It is the same in many ways to rugby, but in rugby, if a big guy comes up against a small guy, nine times out of 10, the big guy is going to dominate that.

“In touch, it is just a single touch. You have to stop, roll the ball, and it takes the macho element out of it, because there is no contact area.”

Abu Dhabi, April 13, 2019. Middle East Touch preparing to play at the World Cup of rugby's non-contact version. Victor Besa/The National. Section: SP Reporter: Paul Radley
Middle East Touch prepare for the Touch World Cup in Malaysia later this month. Victor Besa / The National

Manning is not the only player in the tour party to have Olympics on his CV.

As a 20-year-old, Craig Henderson played football for New Zealand in the 2008 Beijing Games, before going on to enjoy a professional career in Europe and the United States.

Eleven years on, he will be playing at another global tournament in a sport he only took up a few months ago.

“I had never played touch properly before coming here, and have only really been playing it seriously for the past six months,” Henderson said.

“I played every sport as a kid. When I was about 10, I was about to make the switch from football to rugby. Fortunately, my coach said, ‘No, you shouldn’t do that’.

“I stuck with football, which was probably a good thing, or else I might have been crushed by now.”

Touch differs markedly from rugby’s other codes. There are six players per side, with squads of 14, playing 40 minute matches on a field that is 70 metres by 50 metres.

There is a heavy focus on aerobic fitness. When the squads trained on Saturday morning at Abu Dhabi Cricket, for example, Manning’s GPS tracker had a read-out of 7.97kms after 60 minutes of match practice.

It is no surprise, then, that an indefinite number of interchanges are permitted in each touch match.

“That is a lot, but it is not at one pace,” Manning said of the distance he had covered.

“For a lot of that, you are at 60, 70 or 80 per cent of your max speed.

“That is why we only stay on for 60 seconds then rotate off as a sub. We have a general rule of thumb that you stay on for maximum 90 seconds.

“You work hard for up to that time, then come off, because you are absolutely gassed by that stage. You want off. And you repeat that for 40 minutes.”

Abu Dhabi, April 13, 2019. Middle East Touch preparing to play at the World Cup of rugby's non-contact version. Victor Besa/The National. Section: SP Reporter: Paul Radley
Middle East Touch captain Jeremy Manning. Victor Besa / The National

Another rule is that, in mixed competitions, there must be an ever split of three males and three females on the pitch at any one time.

Olivia Flanagan will be one of the female players on Manning’s side. She is no stranger to international competition.

Last year she captained the UAE netball team which finished third at the European Challenge Cup in Gibraltar.

Previous to moving here, she had played for Singapore at netball’s World Cup in Sydney in 2015.

Now, while nursing an injury that is presently keeping her out of netball, she is set for more international honours in touch.

“There are relatable skills from netball to touch, such as basic passing and catching,” Flanagan said.

“There is also the importance of close team work at all times in both attack and defence.”

Middle East Touch squads

Mixed open

Helen Soens, Femke Soens, Logan Larkens, Marina Sergeeva, Paloma Cimino, Georgia Barber, Arty Prevot, Grant Goes, Dave Ermerins, Michael White, Alex Fowler, Aldo Panaino, Tumans Ruomyes, Mark Bezzina, David Richards

Men’s 30 mixed

Liv Flanagan, Ali Henderson, Rebecca Manson, Chantelle Puohotaua, Katie Sumner, Krystal Winsloe, Hone Brausch, Kerry Burton, Dillion Gage, Craig Henderson, Jeremy Manning, Joel Pikari, Lani Puohotaua, Larwence Rowan, Matt Sliedrecht, John Larkins

Men’s 40

Leon Bell, Greg Boucher, Kevin Budd, Greg Campbell, Kyle Dawson, Mark Goodwin, Fraser Hudson, Max Lohe, Stephen Munnery, Stuart Rayer, Kane Sandison, Nathan Stanley, Scott Taylor, Alistair Thorne, Dan Walker, Tui Warihua

Updated: April 24, 2019 01:09 PM

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