UAE rugby: National side can reclaim spot in Asia’s top flight in Malaysia this week
DUBAI // The UAE can win the Asia Rugby Championship Division 1 in Malaysia this week, and regain their place in the top flight of continental rugby for the first time in four years.
That is the view of Daniel Perry, the vice-captain, who believes the national team have nothing to fear despite giving away as many as 31 world ranking places to their counterparts.
They start their campaign against hosts Malaysia in Ipoh on Sunday, with Philippines and Sri Lanka to follow this week.
The winners of the competition will be elevated to the top division next season, where they will play against South Korea and Hong Kong for the chance to advance in the World Cup qualifying process.
Perry thinks success is well within the UAE’s compass, given “we have leaders right across the park,” and it is “as strong a side as I have seen in a long time”.
His point about leadership is well founded. Perry, the former captain of Dubai Hurricanes, is deputy to Ben Bolger, the captain who oversaw five trophy wins with Abu Dhabi Harlequins in domestic rugby this season.
Six of the players competing for the eight starting berths in the UAE forward pack either are, or have been, captains of Premiership first XVs. A seventh, Winston Cowie, is the head coach of Abu Dhabi Saracens.
Even before leaving to tour, the side have proved they have character. In their two warm-up matches, against scratch sides of Conference and Premiership players, they reversed early deficits to win.
“Coming from behind and beating sides brings a team very close together,” Perry said.
“Yes, we will need character this week. It is going into the unknown for a lot of us, but the bottom line is we are going there to win it.
“There is no way we are going there to make numbers up, or to see what we are capable of. We are going there to win the thing, because the squad we have is capable of great things.
“If that means climbing the rankings, then it means climbing the rankings. If we give everything, that should be enough to win that league. That is what we are going there to do.”
Three Test matches in the space of seven days, against teams ranked far higher in the World Rugby standings than the UAE, will be demanding.
However, the national team might feel their own official ranking of 72 is still a false reflection of their capabilities.
Having only become full members of World Rugby in 2011, they entered at the very bottom, 97th in the standings, and have steadily worked their way up since.
Dave Knight, the openside flanker, is confident the national team has assembled its strongest group of players to date.
The Sharjah-born forward is well placed to judge, having debuted for the UAE four years ago, when they last played in the top flight.
His playing experience pre-dates that, too, as he captained the Arabian Gulf at Under 19 level, in a side that also included current colleague Jaen Botes, before graduating to the men’s game with the UAE.
“If you compare the team from now to when I played four years ago, you can’t compare — we are talking about a completely different class of players,” Knight, the Dubai Hurricanes captain, said.
“Even from last year. Last year we had a strong team, but this year has gone up another level.
“We are going there to win it. Everyone has agreed that is achievable with the standard the league is at the moment, and the quality of players that have made themselves available for the tour.”
The quality of personnel in the squad, as well as the atmosphere surrounding it, marks a stark difference from the last time the UAE played at the top level of the Asian game.
Back then, apathy towards a failing side meant many leading players did not make themselves available for selection, which prompted a slide down the divisions.
Now, though, Apollo Perelini, the coach, is overseeing a side full of self-belief who are targeting promotion.
“I think I have got players who, after this tournament if we get there, are able to step up again,” Perelini said.
“Korea and Hong Kong have a very good rugby programme. They have semi-professional players, and some who are fully professional. But what we are aiming for is to get there, to the top flight.”
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