The national sevens team believe they have put the game in the UAE “back on the map” after winning the plate at the Dialog Asia Rugby Sevens Series in Dubai at the weekend.
UAE fell short of their ultimate goal. The top two sides from the eight-team tournament at Sports City, which ended up being Hong Kong and South Korea, qualified for the World Cup Sevens in South Africa next year.
That possibility was out of the home team’s reach more or less seven minutes in to their first game, after China built up an unassailable lead in the tournament opener.
UAE’s performances from there on, though, were admirable. They beat Sri Lanka, and pushed Japan – Asia’s best-resourced rugby nation – only to fall to a defeat that pushed them into the second-tier plate competition.
The hosts dominated that event, with a 31-14 win followed by a 29-10 win over Sri Lanka in the plate final.
“We reset our goals going into the second day, and the only thing we would accept would be fifth place,” said Blair Cochrane, the Dubai Hurricanes back whose brace of tries against China started UAE’s resurgence in the tournament.
“But it was overshadowed by a little frustration because we knew we were definitely one of the top four best sides in that tournament.”
Opportunities in international competition are rare for UAE rugby players. The sevens squad, for example, will disperse back to their clubs and play against each other in the Gulf Men’s event at the Dubai Sevens, rather than together in international tournaments.
Despite missing out on the World Cup Sevens, Cochrane is confident the side have started something significant via their exploits in the Asia Sevens Series.
“I think this is just the beginning,” Cochrane said.
“The way we see it is this is the baseline, this is foundation for us to build from. We have just managed to reach the highest finishing place the UAE have ever had.
“As much as, after the first day, eyes might have been taken off us, we have definitely put UAE back on the map in terms of contending as a rugby team.
“The next steps will be getting to more competitive tournaments to give us more exposure. I think that was the main difference between us and the other teams.”
Matthew Pewtner, the Dubai Hurricanes coach who was assistant to UAE coach Apollo Perelini for the sevens, said the national team had acquitted themselves well, despite the slow start.
“I firmly believe that if we had performed better in the first half against China, we could have finished in the top two,” Pewtner said.
“In the second half of the China game, then in the rest of our pool games, we certainly showed we were strong contenders.”
Pewtner echoed Cochrane’s sentiment that the weekend should be the foundation on which something substantial is built.
“It certainly feels like we are building something,” Pewtner said.
“We finished fifth, we won the plate, and that is the best UAE have done in such a tournament ever. That is obviously an achievement, and a step in the right direction.
“But we said to the players at the end that the most exciting thing was the fact we weren’t satisfied with fifth, because we feel like we were better than that.
“That is a really good thing. We can say with confidence that we are not far away from the teams who finished above us, if they are even better at all.
“It goes to show the work we have put in the past few months has been good work and we are building something special.”