x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

The numbers add up for Bruce Birtwistle

The UAE's defeat to Japan was never likely to define their season, but the "Battle of the Expats Brats" - as the players fondly term their meeting with Hong Kong - has always been seen as their most important match.

David Clark, the former captain of the Arabian Gulf, once christened the representative team the "Kings of Adversity." It was probably with weeks like this one that he had in mind.

The name may have changed, but the challenges facing the UAE side remain the same.

Last Thursday evening, the national team's players switched off their office computers and changed their focus to playing rugby against the professionals from Asia's leading rugby nation, Japan, instead.

The Japenese players had been in Dubai all week, training intensively with a World Cup in New Zealand on their mind.

The amateurs from the UAE were always likely to be "staring down the barrel", as Mike Cox-Hill, their captain, put it.

Bruised by the subsequent hefty defeat, the players were back in work on Sunday morning, as they endeavoured to fit in their duties before tapping into more annual leave when they flew to Hong Kong on Thursday.

They travelled without three key players, including Dan Boatwright, the prop who scored the UAE's first try in the opening HSBC Asian Five Nations match in Sri Lanka, due to the sort of commitments professional players do not have to worry about.

Elsewhere in the squad, one of the country's best players made a belated debut for the national team against Japan, having missed the start of the competition because he had holiday booked. Given the backdrop, it is a surprise the UAE can field a team at all, let alone be playing off to be regarded as the best amateur side in Asia in Hong Kong today.

"I think the UAE fights above its weight," Bruce Birtwistle, the coach who has dovetailed his duties with the national team with his job as a business unit manager, said.

"Look at Sri Lanka, they have supposedly over 100,000 players now. We have a small pool. We are realistic about what we are trying to achieve in the short term, but I think the UAE has some long-term goals with their rugby.

"Other than these guys packing in their jobs, living in gymnasiums and playing rugby, this is probably the best we can do."

After the humbling defeat on Friday, Birtwistle pointed out that Japan has approximately as many clubs, around 3,500, as there are players here. Of those, a smaller number still qualify to play for the UAE as three-year residents.

Yet those involved with the national team are not in the habit of resorting to excuse-making. The Japan result was never likely to define their season, but the "Battle of the Expats Brats" - as the UAE fondly term their meeting with Hong Kong - has always been seen as their most important match.

"All of our focus is on Hong Kong," Cox-Hill said. "We are two evenly matched teams.

"We have been the surprise package in this year's Asian Five Nations to date. Finishing second in Asia would be a massive achievement for a Union like the UAE that is just moths old.

"We have some lofty goals for rugby in the region and that kind of placing would help us achieve those ambitions."

As the Arabian Gulf, the representative team got the better of Hong Kong when they last met, in Bahrain last year.

There are only five survivors in the UAE squad since then, and the home side have been buoyed by fine form in this campaign which has carried them to second place in the current standings, three points ahead of the Emirates.

"We need to focus on a couple of key areas in our defensive shape along with producing quality ball at set pieces and the contact area to allow our key runners to pressurise the UAE," Dai Rees, the former Wales Under 21 coach who is now in charge of Hong Kong, said.

"A win on Saturday will complete a good 2010/11 season which started back in November. The team has worked hard to increase the skill levels and intensity in all aspects of the game. If the players maintain this focus, the result will look after itself."