x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Russell puts body on the line for Dubai Dragons

Andy Russell, the talented fly-half, is one of the players to watch as the UAE Premiership starts today.

Andy Russell, centre, playing for the United Kingdom team, is already one of the stand-out players in Gulf rugby. Pawan Singh / The National
Andy Russell, centre, playing for the United Kingdom team, is already one of the stand-out players in Gulf rugby. Pawan Singh / The National

If Andy Russell continues his current rate of progress and gets the inevitable call from the UAE national team next year, he will complete a remarkable family hat-trick in international sport. 

The Dubai Dragons fly-half, who moved to the UAE in 2008, is still a year away from qualifying to play for his adopted homeland under the IRB's three-year residency rules. 

But the Johannesburg-born No 10 is already one of the stand-out players in Gulf rugby and will be a shoo-in for the national team as soon as he becomes eligible.

If he does accept the call, Russell, 25, will be the third sibling in his family to play internationally. Between them, the Russells will have represented two nations, and in two sports. 

Brother Brent, who currently plays for Clermont Auvergne in France, excelled for South Africa Sevens before becoming a full Springbok. Meanwhile, sister Shelley has just returned from the hockey World Cup with South Africa.

There was a time when cricket appeared to be younger brother Andy's most likely path to the professional arena. Aged 19, in his gap year between school and university, he travelled to Australia to play cricket, but was soon running out alongside some of the top names in rugby. 

"I went to Australia to focus on my cricket but I ended up pulling on a pair of rugby boots, and that was me for my career," said Russell, who was soon running out alongside Wallabies like Chris Latham and Julian Huxley for the West Brisbane Bulldogs. 

"I got to play Premier grade rugby by the end of my year there, which meant playing with some of the big names of Australian rugby."

He moved to Dubai after university, and joined the Dragons, who kick off the domestic rugby season today when they face their city rivals, the Exiles, in the opening round of the new Arabian Gulf Top Six competition. 

"The standard might not be as good as some places overseas, but you still come up against some very good teams on a Friday afternoon," he said. "You have to put your body on the line the same way you would do back at home in South Africa." 

The Exiles, the longest-established UAE club, have endured a fallow recent past, but they have bold plans to regain their status at the top of the game in the region.

They recently unveiled a new director of rugby, Ravin du Plessis, and his targets for the campaign do not end with on-field success. 

"We want to make sure we are the trendsetters in the UAE," said Du Plessis, who was formerly a coach with the New Zealand Super rugby franchise the Crusaders. 

"We want to become an integrated club. Our theme for this year is: the Exiles is not just a place where you play, but a place where you belong."