Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 2 December 2020

On this day: April 23, 2011 – UAE play their first Test match in rugby, a 13-all draw in Sri Lanka

Match in Colombo ended in a 13-all draw against Sri Lanka

The UAE forwards make progress in a rain-drenched opening Asian Five Nations match in Colombo on April 23, 2013. 
The UAE forwards make progress in a rain-drenched opening Asian Five Nations match in Colombo on April 23, 2013. 

To say this day in 2011 was the first time Ishy Bilady had been played ahead of a rugby Test match would not be exactly accurate.

The region, at least, had been represented in international rugby since 1993, by the collective name of Arabian Gulf.

The custom was for that side to sing the nation anthem of the country in which they were playing that particular home fixture.

More often than not that was in the UAE, although Tests were played in Bahrain and Qatar, too.

The Gulf union was disbanded at the end of 2010 for a variety of reasons. It was, after all, an anomaly within rugby as a collective group of nations.

Splitting it from one union into single entities also helped add extra numbers to the list of places playing the game, which was seen as key to rugby’s bid for acceptance into the Olympic movement.

Although Test rugby was not entirely new to the players who lined up for the first UAE side for their first Asian Five Nations Test against Sri Lanka, there was a lot that was unfamiliar.

The representative side – whether it be the UAE now, or the Gulf as it was before – has always had a high annual turnover of players, reflecting the transitory nature of the region. So that first side did include many fresh to the international game.

The occasion, too, was scarcely recognisable for the amateur players who were on tour in Colombo.

Instead of the handful of friends and family they would usually play in front of in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there were thousands packed in to the Ceylonese Rugby and Football Club.

The opposition included the son of the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

As per a global survey of the time, Sri Lankan rugby was inside the top 10 rugby nations for participation. Which explains the interest.

Even the weather was alien for the visiting players, who were more used to the flat tracks of the desert.

The match coincided with the start of the monsoon season on the island’s south-west coast. A deluge had made the pitch a quagmire, and most of the pitch markings were washed away.

Perhaps fittingly, given the wet conditions, the UAE’s first try-scorer was a Dubai Hurricanes prop called Dan Boatwright, whose name derives from the boat building industry.

The quantity surveyor, who still lives in Dubai and retains his association with the Hurricanes, was an unlikely history maker. As a member of the front-row union, tries rarely came in a flood for him.

“There'll be a few people I won't let forget,” Boatwright said of that try.

“Hopefully I'll be talking to the grandkids about it one day.”

Sri Lanka had held an 8-0 lead before Boatwright scored. When his Hurricanes clubmate Steve Smith later crossed, it meant UAE got their account up and running in international rugby with a 13-13 draw – although they had hoped for better.

“It was a proper rugby experience, I said to the boys they needed to take it all in as it will be a great experience to look back on – though maybe not the result,” Mike Cox-Hill, the UAE captain, said.

Updated: April 23, 2020 06:53 AM

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