Gulf rugby side ready for ‘serious’ Madagascar match and contributing goodwill

Paul Radley reports on the Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors, a pan-Gulf rugby side who will be touring Madagascar and playing the No 41 ranked rugby team in the world.

Mike Ballard shown at Friday's Conquistadors foundation team training session. Reem Mohammed / The National / June 10, 2016
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DUBAI // The majority of the region’s rugby players are enjoying a well-earned off-season break at present. The most strenuous exercise many will be undertaking will be reaching for the TV remote control, flicking through the channels to find the mid-year internationals.

Not everyone, though. Early Friday morning, a scratch squad of players quickly forging new friendships, not to mention attempting to create some semblance of playing understanding, were running shuttles up and down the Dubai Sports City rugby field.

It was the first and last chance they will have to get together to train before they face the world’s No 41 ranked side, Madagascar, in three weeks’ time.

The Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors are made up of players from eight clubs from the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.

They leave for a tour to the African nation later this month, where they will be taking medical equipment, wheelchairs and rugby kit.

A goodwill excursion it may be, but the players face a daunting task on the pitch, too. The side they will be playing against are ranked 32 places above the full UAE national team in the world standings.

With over 22,000 registered players, rugby is the national sport in Madagascar, meaning the tourists will have their work cut out.

“They will be doing a Haka before the match,” Winston Cowie, the player-manager and forwards coach, said.

“Many of our boys haven’t faced one of them before, so that’s incredibly exciting. A crowd of about 20,000 are expected for the match.”

For the home nation, the match against the invitational touring side is a key part of their preparations for their 2016 Test programme.

Ed Lewsey, one of a small group of Conquistadors players who also travelled to Uzbekistan with the UAE last month for the Asian Rugby Championship campaign, said the side are not overawed by the task ahead.

“The team we are playing are serious, a national side, who will be very good, so we have had to recruit well,” said Lewsey, the Conquistadors scrum half and backs coach.

“We have got some of the best players in the Gulf, and we have had a training session to get a bit of organisation. We feel we are going to be prepared for a great game.”

The Conquistadors first formed in order to play at the 2015 Dubai Rugby Sevens, with the sole purpose of supporting the Mike Ballard Foundation.

Ballard, who was paralysed in an accident while playing a domestic match in Abu Dhabi in 2014, is now back working in the capital.

The foundation was initially set up to cover the costs of his rehabilitation, but he is now keen to redirect the funds to other causes.

“Abu Dhabi Harlequins and the entire Gulf rugby region really came together to support me,” said Ballard, after overseeing Friday’s training session.

“They raised a bunch of money to get me through my rehab so I was able to take a year and a half off and not worry about anything on the financial side. That was amazing.

“Now I’m back here, we realised we had all this in place, all these people who want to get involved and help. I’m back out, living on my own, independent, working, driving, so where can we go from here?

“That is when we shifted from trying to raise money to support me, to looking for other projects to help other people around the world.”​

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