x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE's new national rugby union team aim for second place at Asian Five Nations

The newly-formed UAE national team are setting themselves the bold target of finishing second in the top competition in Asia at the end of this season.

The newly-formed UAE national team are setting themselves the bold target of finishing second in the top competition in Asia at the end of this season.

Undeterred by the fact April's HSBC Asian Five Nations will be their first tournament as a lone union, and having lost a raft of high-quality players when the Arabian Gulf disbanded at the end of 2010, they aim to finish runners-up behind Japan.

Such ambition is a notable break from the past.

The wealth of distractions, primarily centred on work commitments, weighing on the amateur players who made up the Gulf side meant simply avoiding relegation was usually the extent of their aspirations.

However, since Bruce Birtwistle's ascension to head coach two seasons ago, excuses have been replaced by genuine belief.

Results have followed. They were promoted straight back to Asia's top level competition via two wins in Division One in 2009.

They then retained their place in the Top Five last season when they beat Hong Kong in Bahrain and Korea in Dubai in the Gulf's final match as a collective entity.

"To make the UAE second place in Asia in a Premiership division would be a fantastic achievement," Michael Cox-Hill, the captain of the last Gulf side and possible leader of the UAE, said.

"I don't think the UAE are second at the premier level of many sports around the world, but this is something in which we can provide a good base for the country moving forward."

To achieve their goal, the UAE will need three wins from their four matches. They start their campaign away to promoted Sri Lanka on April 23.

Of all the players they will now have to do without, the three biggest losses are Jonny MacDonald, James Love and Taif al Delamie.

MacDonald, the scrum-half, is currently exploring the possibility of having a trial for Scotland, for whom he is now available, while Love, the full-back, qualifies for Bahrain, not the UAE.

The UAE are currently petitioning the International Rugby Board (IRB) to allow Al Delamie, an Omani national, special permission to play for them as Oman do not have a recognised union. He is, however, nursing a knee injury anyway.

"In terms of the nucleus of players, we actually have a bigger pool than last year," Cox-Hill said. "A lot more people have now become qualified by [the IRB's three-year residency rule] and other people who were either injured or unavailable last year have seen the momentum we have built up and made themselves available."

Cox-Hill will be in direct conflict against his probable partner in the UAE second-row, Simon Osborne, when his Dubai Exiles side meet the Hurricanes at the Sevens this afternoon.