x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

UAE pair are set for 'huge honour' in Asian Five Nations opener

Ali Mohammed and Mohannad Shaker have contrasting styles, speed versus strength, as flag-bearers on a rugby squad that will wear UAE colours for the first time.

Mohannad Shaker, right, trains with the national team last night in Dubai. The Emirati will be among the replacements on Saturday.
Mohannad Shaker, right, trains with the national team last night in Dubai. The Emirati will be among the replacements on Saturday.

The captain of the UAE rugby team will underline the significance of Saturday's landmark game with Sri Lanka to the team's two trailblazing Emirati players in what is likely to be a rousing team talk at the Ceylonese Rugby and Football Club in Colombo.

Ali Mohammed and Mohannad Shaker have been named among the replacements for the Asian Five Nations game which will be the first time the country will play under its own flag following the break up of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Union. It promises to be a special moment for the Dubai Wasps pair.

"These two lads will be flag bearers," Mike Cox-Hill, the captain, said. "They will feel a huge honour playing for their country and they will give 110 per cent. This will be the first game for the UAE and the fact there are two Emiratis playing adds an extra dimension. They will be making history and they will look back and cherish this day."

Ali is a speedy back while Shaker is a raw, uncompromising prop forward. The pair may perform contrastingly different roles but they have both immersed themselves in the culture fostered by Bruce Birtwistle, the coach. Indeed the pair have already made contributions to the team fines' pot which already stands at Dh3,500.

"They told us not to treat them differently," Cox-Hill said.

"They want to earn their stripes, not be given them, and to hear that was like a breath of fresh air. They are young guys and have a real understanding of what rugby is about. Hopefully more Emiratis will say 'We can do this too' as the game helps break down cultural barriers. Rugby is a universal language."

Stuart Quinn, the Dubai Exiles No 9, said the pair endeared themselves to the squad when they travelled as non-playing reserves to Morocco for a recent friendly.

"I think they saw a few things that shocked them but it was a good experience for them travelling with teammates for the first time," Quinn said. "Obviously there is a lot of down time and a lot of twiddling your thumbs and trying to find ways of keeping occupied without getting yourself into trouble. There were certainly a few fines flying about. Hopefully they will go back to their Emirati peers, share their experience and try and grow the Emirati player base from there."

Shaker was recommended to the selectors by Trevor Leota, the Dubai Wasps hooker, who knows all about scrummaging having spent eight years at London Wasps.

"Mohannad is a good guy," Cox -Hill said. "He is technically very sound and has a good, strong position. He is very quiet and learning all the time. The good thing is you only have to tell him once or twice and he takes it all in. He will get his opportunities and is certainly one for the future."

Quinn said: "His body shape has changed massively and he has lost a lot of weight. Mike Riley [the Dubai Exiles prop] has taken him under his wing and the results have been marked."

Ali will provide cover on the bench for wingers Steve Smith and Sean Hurley.

"Ali is also young and is very capable," the captain said. "He is physically strong, is confident and so eager to learn. He has made so much progress in the last three or four months since we came together in January."

Quinn said Ali is probably the quickest player in the squad, saying, "He is very fast and has come on leaps and bounds."

Cox-Hill will pack down in the engine room with Simon Osbourne and will spearhead a bruising display from the forwards.

"We've got to meet fire with fire and leave nothing out there," Cox-Hill said.

"We will look to use our forward momentum and then unleash the backs as and when. We have physically improved since last year but the agility of the team is also better.

"We have got forwards who do their primary role but who are also good ball-handlers. Take Simon, for example. He is 6ft 6in and 115kg, and is dangerous on the hoof but he also has good hands."

The team will only feature five survivors from the Arabian Gulf team but Cox-Hill has no concerns over the potential lack of telepathy at the new half-back axis between Quinn and Jonathan Grady, or the back-row trio of Renier Els, Carl von Rosenveldt and Scott Kerr.

"I think the fact we have so many fresh faces is an advantage," Cox-Hill said.

"Opponents like Kazakhstan, Japan and Hong Kong won't have seen these guys before, as they weren't eligible, so they should add a new dimension to our play."

Cox-Hill, 36, has spent the last six years in the UAE and calls it his "second home. It will be a big honour and a privilege captaining the side.

"There is also a big weight and big expectation on us, but we feel we can fulfil our ambition of getting a win. We just now want the game to start and we are fizzing and ready to go."

kaffleck@thenational.ae