UAE rugby side are seeking redemption, says captain
DUBAI // Alistair Thompson, the UAE captain, insists his side have no psychological scars from the two hefty defeats they suffered against Hong Kong last year.
The two foes meet again today in the opening match of the 2012 Asian Five Nations, just five months after the visitors dealt the UAE a 72-14 trouncing in the Emirates Cup of Nations in Dubai.
These countries are no strangers to each other. They met in the first ever Five Nations fixture in Al Ain four years ago, when Hong Kong edged out the home side 20-12.
The last time Hong Kong visited this region for a Five Nations fixture they suffered a shock defeat, as a Jonny Macdonald breakaway try earned victory for the Arabian Gulf - the forebears of the UAE - in Bahrain in 2010.
They have been unrelenting in exacting revenge since, notching up over 130 points in the course of two victories over the national team in 2011.
However, while Hong Kong have retained the nucleus of the side who swept them to second place in last year's tournament, the UAE have few players who experienced last year's travails.
Duncan Hall, the new performance manager, handed debuts to 10 new players in their bruising warm-up Test match in Tunisia earlier this month.
And Thompson insists the few survivors from the Cup of Nations in the UAE side have plenty of motivation to erase the memory of that collective torment.
"A lot of the new faces coming in haven't been on the receiving end of that," said the No 8, who made his international debut in the 72-14 loss at the end of last year.
"It was a skeleton crew in that tournament. Although our squad is not huge at present, we are more comfortable with each other now.
"In terms of psychological scars, the players who played in that game are not scarred in any way. We are just keen to put wrongs right."
Just two players in the UAE line-up today know what success against Hong Kong feels like.
Sean Hurley and Steve Smith, the two wingers who survive from the Gulf's victory in Bahrain in 2010, have each shelved thoughts of retirement to commit for another campaign. Hurley, the versatile Jebel Ali Dragon, is closing in on the representative caps record for a player in this region, currently held by Mark Gathercole, the former Dubai Exiles prop who played 43 times for the Arabian Gulf.
Mike Riley, Gathercole's former front-row partner for club and country, also remains keen on adding to his own haul of 35 appearances for the representative side, despite his absence from today's playing squad. Hurley will win his 38th cap today, and wants a win to celebrate.
"We are nothing like the team that played in December," he said.
"We are dwelling on what we have done together in the past six weeks as a team, nothing before that."
World ranking: 14
Coach: Eddie Jones
Prospects: Have never lost a match in the four Asian Five Nations tournaments staged to date. Since beating the UAE by 111 points last year, they have played at a World Cup and brought in Eddie Jones, the former Australia coach, to replace John Kirwan.
World ranking: 26
Coach: Leigh Jones
Prospects: Cemented their status as the best of the pack chasing Japan with an impressive display last year, and then won the Emirates Cup of Nations in Dubai in December. Ever present in the top flight since the 2008 inception of the Five Nations.
World ranking: Not ranked
Coach: Duncan Hall
Prospects: A win and a draw last year was enough to secure a solid enough third-place finish, even though the national team’s points differential was the worst in the tournament. Wholesale changes include a new coach and captain this time around.
World ranking: 30
Coach: Valery Popov
Prospects: Only just survived a relegation battle with Sri Lanka last season, which suggested the rapid advance Kazakh rugby had made in recent years had slowed. They face another nervous campaign as this year’s Five Nations is stronger than ever.
World ranking: 31
Coach: Kim Myung Joo
Prospects: Korea spent years as the undisputed No 2 in Asian rugby behind their neighbours in Japan, then were shocked when the Arabian Gulf consigned them to relegation from the top flight in 2010. They bounced back at the first time of asking.