Three Emiratis are among 12 new caps as first competition since full membership of IRB is stepping stone to Asian Five Nations, writes Paul Radley.
UAE place emphasis on survival at Cup of Nations
DUBAI // The UAE will attempt to bridge a gap of 73 places in the world rankings table when they face Belgium in the opening match of the Cup of Nations this afternoon.
Having only just been accepted to full membership of the IRB, the national team's newly granted position at No 96 in the standings may seem superficially low.
However, the task facing them against the European side is still a massive one. The Belgians have called on a number of players who play highly competitive club rugby in neighbouring France for their debut in this four-nation tournament.
Meanwhile, Duncan Hall, the UAE coach, will be handing out 12 new caps as the national team attempt to tackle mission impossible. As a marker of how lean the pickings are for this competition, not one member of the all-conquering Jebel Ali Dragons team – who have won four trophies in the past four weekends of domestic rugby – is in the squad.
Three Emirati newcomers are in the starting line-up, including Hareb Al Azri and Mohammed Abbas, each of whom will be making their XVs debut in the backline.
Ostensibly, newly capped players may seem a bid to build for the future. However, some of the new players who have answered the call for the first time are veterans themselves.
Chris Burch, who has been handed a place on the replacements bench, was coach rather than player for Dubai Hurricanes during the UAE Premiership campaign.
His predecessor in that role, James Ham, has been rewarded for his return to fitness and form by being handed the No 10 shirt this afternoon.
Brett Bowie – one of several Abu Dhabi Saracens recruits – is front-row cover on the bench, a week after he was playing veterans rugby at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Back then he joked that he should be playing all his rugby at vets level now. A week later, and he is playing international rugby, instead.
"The plan is to survive and hopefully give back twice to these countries what they throw at us," said the Saracens prop.
"Then hopefully by the Asian Five Nations be in a position to start bringing a degree of respectability and physicality back in to UAE rugby."
Like last year, the Cup of Nations is seen as a key part of preparations for the annual Five Nations tournament at the end of the season.
"We have a number of players who have recently become eligible to represent the UAE as well as a number who are still recovering from injury so we find ourselves in a situation where we have 12 new caps," Hall said.
"The line-up has the experience of some old heads, combined with the energy of younger players. We have set ourselves a number of goals in this opening game and achieving these is our overall priority."
While those goals are unspecified, this week is likely to be one of damage limitation for the national team, both on the scoreboard as well as physically.
Last year, in the inaugural edition of this competition, they were heavily beaten in matches against Brazil, Kenya, and the eventual champions, Hong Kong.
The experience also took its toll on bodies as well as minds.
The players went down with ailments as varied as fractured cheekbones, torn ligaments and blood clots.
With three Test matches in the space of seven days, against a tougher calibre of opposition, this week is unlikely to be any easier.
The Cup of Nations "is a very important part of our XVs programme and last year was central in creating the foundation for our Asian Five Nations campaign", said Qais Al Dhalai, the deputy secretary of UAE Rugby.
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