x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

UAE target Asian Five Nations victory for new era of rugby

Bruce Birtwistle, the UAE head coach, hopes his team can usher in an "exciting" new era for rugby in the country by defeating Sri Lanka in their opening Asian Five Nations game on Saturday.

Bruce Birtwistle, the UAE coach, centre, is looking forward to a new era for rugby in the country.
Bruce Birtwistle, the UAE coach, centre, is looking forward to a new era for rugby in the country.

The UAE head coach hopes his team can usher in an "exciting" new era for rugby in the country by defeating Sri Lanka in their opening Asian Five Nations game on Saturday.

Bruce Birtwistle takes charge of the national side for their first game under the flag of the UAE after the Rugby Association assumed governance following the disbanding of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Union.

They will play Sri Lanka at Colombo's Ceylonese Rugby and Football Club on Saturday in a landmark fixture and Birtwistle is expecting nothing less than maximum points. "This game is a must win and there is no compromise in our expectations on this team," the New Zealander said. "Nothing less than a W will do."

The UAE will field only five players who featured in the previous Five Nations campaign and will miss one of their previous players more than most, according to Birtwistle.

"Jonny MacDonald is probably the biggest loss," said the coach. "But he has gone on to bigger and better things with Scotland and played in the Hong Kong and Adelaide sevens. He goes with our blessing as he was a great servant for us. He was a great attacker and a fearless defender."

Filling his boots at No 9 will be Stuart Quinn, the Dubai Exiles scrum-half who will form a crucial half-back pairing with Jonathan Grady, the Dubai Dragons pivot. They will operate behind a pack of forwards who Birtwistle believes "are stronger than last year".

The performance of the front five, in particular, is likely to be crucial as Birtwistle is expecting wet weather in Colombo for the game, which has been in stark contrast to the sunny conditions the team have been training in at The Sevens in Dubai.

"I've told the players who have played in England and New Zealand to wind back the years and remember how they played wet-weather rugby," Birtwistle said.

The coach admitted leaving Mike Riley, the Dubai Exiles prop, out of the 22 was his toughest call and has challenged Chris Jones Griffiths, his replacement at loose head, to "step up" and justify his selection.

Another close call, according to Birtwistle, was the decision to recall Duncan Murray at inside centre at the expense of Stephan Imbert.

"We have gone with Duncan's experience," the coach said. "He has been in and out of the side due to other commitments but he has returned as if he has not been away."

The squad leave for Sri Lanka on Thursday and Ian Bremner, the Rugby Association chief executive, is excited by the new dawn.

"It is actually the first time members of this squad will play competitively for their country, rather than a region, on the international stage at a tournament of this calibre," Bremner said.

"We are very proud to announce that two Emirati players [Ali Mohammed and Mohammed Shaker] have been selected to join the squad and take the field on Saturday. We are well aware of the opportunity that has been presented by ARFU and we will be watching every play intently, our performance against Sri Lanka and as our opening match is of the utmost importance to our position and reputation in international rugby."

Birtwistle is ready to take his place in history.

"We are all pretty excited," he said. "We were there at the conclusion of the Arabian Gulf and now at the start of the UAE. It's our first campaign and the guys know they are making history. I think I'll always have fond memories of being the first coach of the national side. I'm working with some good guys and even though we are in our infancy we are hoping to achieve big things. We played against a side from Kandy last year and they have some very committed players, particularly at the breakdown and at the tackle area.

"They will be targeting this game to ensure they stay up in the Asian Five Nations Premier Division but we are targeting it, too."

The UAE squad

1. Chris Jones Griffiths (Abu Dhabi Harlequins) 2. Dan Heal (Dubai Dragons) 3. Dan Boatwright (Dubai Hurricanes) 4. Mike Cox-Hill (capt) (Dubai Exiles) 5. Simon Osbourne (Dubai Hurricanes)6. Renier Els (Abu Dhabi Harlequins) 7.Carl Von Rosenveldt (Dubai Exiles) 8. Scott Kerr (Dubai Dragons); 9. Stuart Quinn (Dubai Exiles) 10. Jonathan Grady (Dubai Dragons) 11. Steve Smith (Dubai Hurricanes) 12. Duncan Murray (Dubai Hurricanes) 13. John Beeton (Dubai Exiles) 14. Sean Hurley (Dubai Dragons), 15 Tim Fletcher. Replacements: Andrew Millar (Dubai Dragons), David Vittes (Dubai Exiles), Lloyd Budd (Dubai Exiles),  Ali Mohammed (Dubai Wasps), Mohanned Shaker (Dubai Wasps), Stephan Imbert (Dubai Frogs)

UAE Asian Five Nation fixtures

April 23 – Sri Lanka v UAE
April 29 – UAE v Kazakhstan
May 13 – UAE v Japan
May 21 – Hong Kong v UAE

kaffleck@thenational.ae