One Decade On From The UAE Rugby’s Debut International
UAE Rugby made headlines last month thanks to the historic first ever meeting with Israel, but that was just the latest milestone in what could only be described as an eventful first decade in existence.
Looking back on that first historic encounter ten years ago
It was on April 23rd, 2011 that the UAE made its competitive debut in international rugby, as they took on Sri Lanka in the Asian Five Nations (A5N) clash in Colombo.
The establishment of the UAE national team was preceded by the disbanding of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union (AGRFU) – which had previously governed the sport across the region, and whose representative teams had been recognised by World Rugby since 1990.
Among the 22 players selected for the UAE’s inaugural competitive fixture, Tim Fletcher and Stuart Quinn had been involved in the closing stages of the Arabian Gulf days and were part of a core of senior players retained by the UAE, while Chris Jones-Griffiths was one of the new faces to the squad, having only completed the three-year residency requirement the previous January.
“There was a big push, with everyone doing extra training and the atmosphere around the whole set up was really positive and everyone was keen to rip right in.”
Speaking to the former team-mates in isolation, it was notable how similar memories and characters stand out, a decade on from a period upon which they clearly look back with great fondness.
“Although we had lost some quality players who weren’t eligible for the UAE, it was exciting because we had other guys who were newly-qualified and everyone was really keen and enthusiastic,” explains former Dragons full-back and the team’s vice-captain, Fletcher. “There was a big push, with everyone doing extra training and the atmosphere around the whole set up was really positive and everyone was keen to rip right in.”
“I’ve always been sceptical of manufacturing a culture, but this bunch of guys did not need to be coerced into one,” then Exiles scrum-half Quinn recalls. “It was there from the outset, nearly every position was fiercely competitive, but as soon as we came off the training field everyone was supportive of each other. It’s very hard to do that and it was the characters and respect that made it a great occasion once we got to the first game.”
“When I moved to the UAE at 27 years of age, I thought my rugby days were numbered and certainly had no aspirations or idea that I would go on to be capped in an international match,” says ex-Abu Dhabi Harlequins prop, Jones-Griffiths. “We (Abu Dhabi-based players) didn’t really know many of the Dubai guys off the pitch but that quickly changed when we started training in the January of 2011 and getting out on tour.”
UAE vs Kazakhstan
Left to right: Homayoun, Vittes, Jones-Griffiths, Quinn, Murray
Left to right: Riley, Els, Jones-Griffiths
Looking back on that first historic encounter ten years ago, it is difficult for those involved to forget about the weather conditions, while also acknowledging the disappointment in the 13-all result.
“I think the conditions really levelled the playing field in terms of our game plan,” Quinn suggests. “We were bitterly disappointed because we saw the game as a chance to get the UAE off to a winning start, but it wasn’t to be. However, the attitude from that moment on didn’t waver. We were undefeated and that was something nice to hold on to.”
“Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan were seen as our must-win games and, had we done a few things better, we felt that we should have won that game, so we were slightly disappointed but optimistic with Kazakhstan coming up,” Fletcher adds.
“There was definitely some disappointment,” explains Jones-Griffiths. “However, we did have a lucky escape with a disallowed try at the end, so the big positive was that we didn’t lose and came away with some points and our pride intact.”
Whatever the feeling after the game, the group didn’t have long to dwell on things, as they returned to the UAE to prepare to face Kazakhstan at Zayed Sports City six days later. Indeed, the game-plan implemented by the coaching team of Bruce Birtwistle and Shane Thornton comes in for much praise as the players look back with pride on an impressive 24-10 win.
“The coaches put an excellent game plan together for the Kazakhstan game, which came off well,” says Fletcher. “We knew they would be quite tough and go up the middle in the first part and we managed to with-stand that and then use a bit of skill and pace out wide.”
“It was nerve-wracking because we knew we could beat them,” says Quinn. “Our first victory ever as country, it was elation for everyone. We were unbeaten in the A5N and I think we all understood what it meant. The photo of that day sits proudly in my living room and it was especially nice to have my parents there.”
“Few players get the chance to play test match rugby, and even fewer get the chance to say they have been part of a winning test match team,” adds Jones-Griffiths. “It was a great game and a great result that was crucial in where we finished in the final standings. It was also nice for the game to be played at Zayed Sports City, where myself and the other Quins lads played our club rugby.”
Playing With The Bigs Boys – Japan and Hong Kong
“It’s one of the best rugby experiences I’ve ever had”
Although unbeaten in the A5N up to that point, the two remaining fixtures were always going to provide a very different challenge, as the UAE took on traditional heavyweights, Japan and Hong Kong.
Home advantage at the Sevens Stadium provided little comfort against a Japan outfit under the watchful eye of All Black legend, John Kirwan, and amid preparations for the Rugby World Cup later that year but the Brave Blossoms’ achievements over recent years at least offer some consolation and context to the 111-0 defeat.
“It’s one of the best rugby experiences I’ve ever had,” Jones-Griffiths claims, without hesitation. “The gulf in class between a fully professional side and us amateurs was clear to see but we competed well in the scrum, which was pleasing, considering that I had only converted to the front row in January 2011.”
Fletcher is equally philosophical; “You go into every game trying to win it, but I think, the reality was we were not going to win that one. To look back and to have played against guys like that, who a few years down the track were beating South Africa in the World Cup, was phenomenal.”
“It was a once in a lifetime chance to see what it took to play against professional players, who were qualifying for World Cups,” says Quinn in a similar vein. “We learnt very quickly but it was an amazing experience. The defining moment being Jon Beeton intercepting a ball and running what felt like the length of the field. I still dream about him making it to the line.”
They say a week is a long time in sport, but the ten years since that maiden campaign appear to have flown from the vivid and warm accounts of these former players, who can always look back on being a part of the UAE’s rugby history.
UAE Rugby Team 2011
UAE Team Lineup
Below was the UAE team that faced Sri Lanka in the Asian Five Nations in Colombo on the April 23rd, 2011.