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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

UAE rugby making progress with a little help from friends like Steve Thompson and Apollo Perelini

Paul Radley reports on how the unheralded UAE national rugby team nonetheless are growing with the help of coaching from some very-heralded figures.
Former England international Steve Thompson, a World Cup winner in 2003, advises the UAE national team as a scrum coach. Pawan Singh / The National / April 15, 2015
Former England international Steve Thompson, a World Cup winner in 2003, advises the UAE national team as a scrum coach. Pawan Singh / The National / April 15, 2015

DUBAI // In many ways, the UAE national rugby team train just as might be expected from a side ranked 91 out of 102 in the world standings.

At Wednesday’s session in Jebel Ali, the 33 players who turned up after work had to make do with half a field, as the other half had been hired by some five-a-side footballers.

When their hour-and-a-half elapsed, a skinny footballer who drew the short straw among his mates and was tasked with asking the hulking rugby players to move was met with a polite reply. He looked delighted, and went back to his pals flexing his biceps.

There were bulbs missing from the floodlights. Airhorns from the neighbouring paintball centre occasionally drowned out the coach’s words.

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Kit was less uniform, more anything goes. The shirts on view ranged from Cardiff Blues to Scotland, to Gaelic football, while some only had plain white tees. Others wore boots with no studs. Sir Clive Woodward would not have put up with this.

Then the narrative suddenly took a turn for the surreal. As their specialist scrum coach, the national team had Steve Thompson, who won the World Cup in 2003 as the hooker in Woodward’s England side.

Alongside him, as the forwards coach who is in harness with the UAE squad ahead of their 2015 Test campaign, was Apollo Perelini, the former dual-code great turned highly-regarded coach. Only in Dubai.

“I had come away from the game, I must admit I had done enough of it, and now I feel like I am, not falling back in love with it, but enjoying it,” Thompson said.

“There is no pressure. I have a young family, a full-time job, and I know all these players do that. When I am here I will give 100 per cent whenever I can.”

Thompson has been resident in Dubai for years now, assisted the UAE Rugby Federation in an advisory capacity, and made a brief return to playing in a social vets competition at last year’s Dubai Sevens.

Now he is back on the training field for the first time, offering the benefit of his expertise on an ad hoc basis. It is a long way from Twickenham or Pennyhill Park, but he is glad to be back.

“These boys have given up a lot of time, some have come from Al Ain, some from Abu Dhabi, traveling from all over to get here at 7pm having worked all day,” he said.

“For me, it is about making the effort to come down and try to add to it as much as I can.

“I have high standards and I want to drag people up with me. I thought the training session went really well.

“When it comes to coaching in rugby I tend to get a little bit involved. I jumped into a few scrums.

“Hopefully I can open my mind, with all the stuff that is in there from all the great coaches I have had, and help these players.”

The national team play three matches in the space of a week in Kuala Lumpur next month.

Roelof Kotze, the performance manager, is in the process of deciding on the 25 players who will travel to play against Malaysia, Chinese Taipei and Thailand.

At least he has some options this time around. The fact there were 33 players at Wednesday’s training, with a couple of other notables absent, is a massive upgrade on what has gone before.

Twelve months ago, when Kotze was new to the job and the UAE had just a lone Test match against Singapore to prepare for, training sessions were sparsely attended.

The UAE might be below the likes of Swaziland, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Luxembourg for a reason.

However, Kotze is optimistic the national team can start climbing back up the rankings, with a little bit of help from celebrated friends like Thompson and Perelini.

“It is great to have these guys in our catchment area, and they are willing to come out and help us get back to where we want to be,” Kotze said.

“That is at the top, not the bottom. It is amazing to think we have those sort of experienced guys living here. Why not use them? It makes no sense not to.

“If we start scratching around in the villas, maybe we will find a few more guys who might not have been keen to get involved.

“Steve had a few years out of the game where he wasn’t interested, but once you are a rugby guy you are always going to be. He is back in.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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