WATCH: 'Frustrated' Apollo Perelini aims to retain UAE side that beat Gibraltar in Dubai friendly
On Friday night in Dubai Sports City, small children up past their bedtimes were having their photos taken with players from the UAE national rugby team.
These were heroes to be proud of. International rugby, on home soil for the first time in only a little more than four years, and with a crack outfit at that.
The home team at Rugby Park had just beaten a talented Gibraltar side 28-15. It felt like the start of something. The precursor to something bigger and better.
The pity is, those photos of the 2018 UAE team will be collector’s items. The side were together for one night only, and then nothing else for the other 364 days. Blink, and they were gone.
Because the national team have been withdrawn from the Asia Rugby Championship Division One, ostensibly due to cost cutting although with no official reason provided, that is it for national duty for this year.
They can hope to be re-enrolled at some point on the competition ladder next year. But this feels like an opportunity missed. What a waste of the most talented crop of players ever assembled in UAE shirts.
“We are frustrated that we have nothing to go to,” UAE coach Apollo Perelini said. “That would have been a nice little warm-up game for us, a good little run out for guys who are still not used to each other, and are still finding their feet.
“It is frustrating, but I want to keep this team and build on that. I am sure there are some great things around the corner for UAE rugby. I am anticipating that. I hope we can move on and move up.”
The home team’s tries were all scored by Dubai Exiles players who had won the UAE Premiership on the same pitch at Rugby Park two weeks’ previously.
Gio Fourie, DuRandt Gerber, Jaen Botes and Thinus Steyn crossed for the hosts, with Oscar Cruz and Mike Millward replying for the guests.
“It was amazing,” said Gerber, the captain and one of many debutants in the UAE squad. “It is emotional and a proud feeling standing there for the anthems.
“We said afterwards that if we had a bit more time together we could have played even better than we did today. We had some good plays and bad plays, but I think overall we weren’t too bad.”
Although excellent rugby was played at times by both sides, gauging quite the level of UAE’s opposition is not easy. Gibraltar are unranked in the World Rugby standings.
They did, however, beat Finland and Hungary in matches earlier this year. Hungary are ranked 72 in the world, two places below UAE, while the Finns are 98.
UAE’s play was undoubtedly impressive though, given they had had just one full training session together, plus a captain’s run the night before the match.
That Thursday night appointment had also doubled up as a chance to lead the cheering for the UAE Barbarians fixture against a Gibraltar development side.
That fixture provided even more reason for optimism. It pitted together a set of players who are mostly as yet ineligible for UAE selection – but many of whom might be next year.
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Some of the Barbarians play in their 63-0 win was were even more outstanding than their senior colleagues managed a day later. If the likes of Stephen Ferguson and Andrew Semple, to name just two of the Barbarians’ standouts, are competing for senior selection any time soon, the national team will be in even better health.
Having lost all three ARC Division 1 matches, against hosts Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Philippines last season, Perelini was pleased to return to winning ways against Gibraltar.
“It is down to the personnel that are available,” Perelini said. “They were disappointed they couldn’t be as fluent as they wanted to be, but that is credit to Gibraltar. They really, really wanted to play.
“We can train, and look good in training, but the moment you come up against a defence, you have to rely on the knowledge you have of each other as players.
“Without a full knowledge of the players around you, it makes it difficult.”