DUBAI // As the bright young things who had brought Dubai Exiles their first major trophy in a decade started the celebration on the pitch on Friday evening, two of the club’s elder statesmen shared a stoic handshake on the touchline.
Then Gareth Venter went back to scribbling the score and disciplinary details of the win over Dubai Hurricanes onto the sheet of paper on his clipboard. Jan Venter, meanwhile, went off to make sure the logistics of their club day were still running like clockwork.
The handshake between them had been enough to say: mission accomplished.
They, along with the club chairman Mike Wolff, had been through a fair bit together to reach this point.
The recent history of the country’s most storied club has been a troubled one. The nadir arrived in March 2012, when Exiles were forced to withdraw from the domestic top flight while the season was still running, as they did not have enough players to field a first team. At the first training session of the following season, eight players turned up.
That from the club who birthed the Dubai Rugby Sevens nearly half a century ago, who were oversubscribed at youth level, who boasted more members and more pedigree than anyone else in the UAE.
The Exiles had turned rotten. Those three wise men – Wolff and the two, unrelated, Venters – stopped that rot.
Jan took the coaching reins, with a remit to change the ethos of the club. Gareth became the first team captain.
Results were of secondary importance, and indeed they only improved appreciably when Jacques Benade was appointed as the club’s director of rugby this season.
But, finally, they cracked it. From that zero four years ago, to singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” together after being crowned the champions of West Asia. What a journey.
Some of the personnel who brought success about, like Benade himself, who arrived in the summer of 2015, were new to the club. Maybe they think it is always like this at the Exiles.
DuRandt Gerber, the new fly-half, who has been widely deemed by opponents as the leading player in the league this season, was recruited at the start of the season. Matt Mills, captain for the day when the title was clinched, arrived six months ago, too.
But a feature of the champion side was the number of players who Exiles created themselves. The under 10s and 12s who formed a guard of honour for the teams running on to the field before kick off between Friday’s match, should be able to see a route to first XV rugby.
Tom Stapley, the highly-rated centre who has come of age – literally and metaphorically – during the West Asia Championship campaign, was just seven years old the last time Exiles won a trophy of any note.
He and Charlie Sargent, both products of the Exiles youth set up, have been just as outstanding as any of the imported help.
Stapley has trialled with professional clubs in the UK. Sargent, meanwhile, must have written a new try-scoring record for the cross-border competition – if a formula for such a statistic can be worked out, given the changing face of the competition.
He scored six tries in the first match, five in the last, and many in between. All of which bodes well for the UAE national team, for whom he also plays.
Which is perhaps the most important fact about the revival of the city’s oldest club. Given the history supporting it, and the network that sprawls through the club, a strong Exiles should mean a strong UAE.
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