x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

When the going gets tough, UAE expected to get going

Emirati rugby players will benefit in the longer run by learning to punch above their weight.

The UAE had a tough time stopping their rivals from knocking them over last year.
The UAE had a tough time stopping their rivals from knocking them over last year.

The country's leading rugby players could be forgiven for approaching the end of 2012 with a sense of trepidation after their assignment for this year's Cup of Nations was confirmed this week.

In their home tournament next month, the UAE will face a Belgium side ranked 23rd in the world, as well as their regular rivals Hong Kong, who are 28th, and Zimbabwe, 29th.

On the back of a month of sevens competition, the task facing the national team is a daunting one.

They have been thrashed twice in Test matches by Hong Kong in the past 12 months, and their Asian rivals are not even the best side in the competition.

Memories of last year's inaugural running of this new tournament are still raw. The UAE were punching above their weight then - and it showed.

Not only were the scorelines ugly, the team were also hit with a raft of serious injuries.

Wayne Marsters, who was the caretaker coach back then, said he knew it was going to be tough on the field but "we didn't want it to be as brutal" as it was.

However, he believes the lessons learnt in that campaign were crucial to achieving their main goal of the year - namely maintaining their status among the continent's elite in the Asian Five Nations.

"It was a tough ask last year, but I still maintain it was the reason we got over the line in the A5N," Marsters said yesterday.

"Does it help us bridge the gap? For sure, it gives guys exposure to a higher level of rugby but the Asian Five Nations is still the big one for us.

"We are still a long way off the likes of Japan and Hong Kong, but this tournament helps us."

While Marsters acknowledges the UAE regard the Cup of Nations as a means to an end, he fears the other nations will mean serious business when they arrive.

Belgium, for example, have a warm-up match ahead of the competition against the French Army.

According to Mark Egan, the IRB's head of performance and development, the UAE can only stand to benefit from the tournament.

"It is great for rugby in the UAE that the Emirates Airline Cup of Nations is going ahead again this year," Egan said.

"As the game continues to develop in the west Asia region, it is encouraging to see that the UAE national team is maintaining a competitive programme of fixtures."

pradley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE