Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 29 May 2020

On this day: April 29, 2011 – UAE win first rugby Test match

Bruce Birtwistle's side beat Kazakhstan in Abu Dhabi

UAE centre Scott Kerr, centre, in action against Kazakhstan at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi on April 29, 2011. Pawan Singh / The National
UAE centre Scott Kerr, centre, in action against Kazakhstan at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi on April 29, 2011. Pawan Singh / The National

With a win rate of 28 per cent, and having played just two competitive matches since 2017, UAE rugby is now well aware of the harsh realities of Test rugby.

It was not always that way. Six days into the new national rugby union’s history, back in 2011, they were unbeaten in Test matches, and on their way to a third-place finish in the top division of Asian rugby.

It is tempting to say they were simpler times. But they really weren’t.

The game in this country was still coming to terms with the transition from a multi-nation federation known as Arabian Gulf to going it alone.

It was anything but smooth. The new organisation was led by an Emirati 20-something with a background in football, who had a remit to bring more indigenous players to the game than the previous incarnation managed.

Nine years on, rugby is part of the national curriculum, and Qais Al Dhalai, that young newbie administrator from back then, is now the president of Asia Rugby.

In terms of on-field performance, though, that opening week as a competitive entity probably still represents the halcyon days for the UAE national team.

They started with a 13-13 draw in Sri Lanka and then, six days later, they picked up their first Test win.

Kazakhstan, who they beat 24-10 at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi on this day in 2011, were no easy-beats, either.

In fact, at the time they had appeared to be a coming force in Asian rugby.

They had won their previous four meetings with the Arabian Gulf, with a combined points difference of 94.

In 2009 and 2010, the Kazakhs had been runners up to Japan in the Asian Five Nations, the continent’s premier rugby competition.

Set against that background, that win in Abu Dhabi was an extraordinary effort by the new UAE team.

Fair to say, it was a brutal affair, but the new side scarcely took a backward step.

They were led by an indomitable display by Mike Riley, a converted American footballer who played at tighthead prop for Dubai Exiles.

It was little surprise Riley was up for the rough and tumble. Before moving to UAE, he had been head of security for Oscar de la Hoya, the champion boxer.

“One thing I love about this game, and the coach mentioned to us, is that this is a Test match and you have to test yourself in terms of physicality and test yourself mentally,” Riley said after the bruising win over the Kazakhs.

“You can't take a step backwards. One thing this game has taught me is that you have to keep going forwards. I was super pumped.

“The coaches have really emphasised togetherness and mental fortitude, the brotherhood and it really meaning something.”

Another thing that Bruce Birtwistle, the first coach of UAE, also stressed was the need for inclusion when it came to Emirati players.

Which is why he gave debuts to Cyrus Homayoun and Ali Mohammed, who became the first two Emirati players to play Test match rugby.

“I had goosebumps the whole game, wanting to get on,” said Homayoun, whose old school, Dubai College, had played a curtain-raiser to the match.

Birtwistle said the new players represented the changing face of the game in this country.

“We had to do it - this is their team,” Birtwistle said of giving the two Emiratis debuts off the bench.

“We have talked about a brotherhood in rugby here the past, but now we can really talk about a UAE brotherhood in rugby.”

Updated: April 29, 2020 08:35 AM

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