'Tiny' produces towering display in UAE's shock win over Kazakhstan
ABU DHABI // Mike Riley, the American footballer turned rugby player, was the cornerstone of a heroic effort as the UAE national team shocked Kazakhstan to earn their maiden Test victory last night.
The long serving prop, who is ironically nicknamed "Tiny", is one of the few players who could recall the days when a side from the region used to go into matches against Kazakhstan expecting — rather than hoping — for a victory.
However, Kazakh rugby has developed apace in recent years. They finished second in the Asian Five Nations last year and appeared to be the best placed nation to challenge Japan's monopoly on the game in Asia.
The Arabian Gulf did not beat them in two attempts in the Asian Five Nations, and, following the transition to a single-nation entity, the UAE were not given much of a hope of doing so either.
However, Riley was warrior-like as he led the resistance from the front, and he even burrowed over for a rare try of his own to set his side on the path to success.
"I have played against Kazakhstan four times and never won," the Dubai Exiles prop, who once aspired to a professional career in the NFL, said.
"It is the first time I have won against them and it is an amazing feeling. It is a monkey off the back."
The monkey is not the only thing he got off his back last night. At one point at the start of the second-half, he was set upon by four Kazakh players while he was on the ground.
Despite the odds being against him and at least one punch clearly thrown at him, Riley emerged from the scuffle unscathed, other than having his shirt ripped off his back.
He was unbowed and visibly willing to take on all comers, and soon had weighty support from his front-row colleague, Dan Heal.
Kazakhstan somehow managed to evade any disciplinary action after the episode, most likely because the referee and his assistant will have struggled to identify the perpetrators. Nikolay Zhuravlev, the flanker, was in the thick of it.
"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.
"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.
"Dan Heal and I, and the whole front-row have been in a lot of campaigns together.
"This team, one through to 22, sticks together through thick and thin."
The UAE played the majority of the first half in Kazakh territory, and were unlucky not to have a clean sheet against their name at the break, after Sergey Kdnev, the wing, stole in at the right-hand corner.
However, they justly held a 14-5 advantage at half time after Riley's try was complemented by three penalties from the boot of Jon Grady, the Dubai Dragons fly-half.
Andrew Millar's late try essentially clinched the win, even if Daulet Akymbekov was allowed a late consolation for the away side.
Riley was left out of the UAE's opening match of the campaign, against Sri Lanka six days earlier, and Bruce Birtwistle, the coach, labelled his return as "inspirational".
"It was a really tough decision to leave Mike out of the Sri Lankan game, but we got the performance out of him that we wanted today as a result," Birtwistle said.
"He was inspirational. He's a great scrummager.
"He was up against a big front row, but that is what we expect from Tiny."
Little sympathy will be wasted on the defeated team.
They arrived with a reputation as a fiery side, and left with one altogether more sinister.
"The UAE wanted to slow our ball as they knew we wanted to play it wide," Timur Mashurov, Kazakhstan's captain, said.
"We ended up playing the game the UAE wanted us to play."
Updated: April 30, 2011 04:00 AM