JAKARTA: Son Heung-min’s quest to avoid military service with South Korea has been the story of the football tournament at the Asian Games, but for the UAE team competing in rugby sevens, the draft has already had its impact — coach Apollo Perelini lost nine of his players to national service before even arriving in Jakarta.
Rugby’s shorter format is making its Asian Games debut this weekend, yet despite organizers inviting all Olympic Council of Asia member nations to take part without the need to qualify, the UAE are the only Gulf side involved. They selected a 21-man squad to fly to Indonesia, but by the time they took to the field at Gelora Bung Karno on Thursday, that had been diminished to just 11. They lost their opening game to Sri Lanka 68-0 and later to Afghanistan 36-0. They meet South Korea today.
“The whole process of us being here was last-minute,” Perelini told Arab News. “With rugby being back in the Olympics and now in the Asian Games too, the question was asked by the UAE National Olympic Committee whether we would be able to put forward a team. I said we could, but then the demands on players from the military stripped us of nine of our top guys and we had another pull-out last week because of national service. Really, it’s a success just to be here.”
As if losing 10 players was not enough, Perelini also watched his captain get knocked unconscious inside the opening two minutes of their defeat to Sri Lanka. Saeed Abdulla Saad was hit hard by an early tackle and will miss the rest of the tournament with concussion.
Saad, recovered and resting on the sidelines after watching his teammates struggle against Afghanistan, is looking on the bright side. “Being here is great experience for some of these guys,” said the 25-year-old.
“A lot of them have never represented their country before, you know? We’re a young team and are learning so much from playing here. Our preparations were not ideal, but we are enjoying the experience and atmosphere.”
The purpose of competing in the Asian Games was never about winning, said Perelini. While the UAE were able to triumph at the Asian Rugby Sevens Trophy earlier this month in Singapore with an expat team, this weekend’s all-Emirati outfit is here simply to learn, develop and ultimately grow the sport.
“We went to Singapore to win, but this tournament is a different mind set,” said Perelini. “It's go in there and survive. There are a lot of other countries who have not brought teams because they don't think they are worthy of being here, but we are of the belief that the moment you come here and get a taste of it, you’ll go home and tell your mates and that can only be a good for the game and its development in the UAE.”
Ahmed Al-Reefi, 30, started playing rugby only three years ago, but said he he was caught off-guard by the quality of rugby in Asia.
“It surprised me a lot,” he said. “The standard is much higher than I expected. We knew Sri Lanka are a very strong team, but Afghanistan was tough too. We trained hard and stuff, but it obviously wasn’t enough and now we must improve. These defeats will help.”
Al-Reefi expects more Arab teams to follow the UAE’s lead and compete in the tournament at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. He predicted Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia would all be involved at the second-largest multisports event in the world, so long as participation remains open.
Perelini agrees although expects a qualification process for Hangzhou.
“It's quite good for us to be the only GCC team taking part," he said. " I think there could be a good Gulf contingent in four years’ time. That's certainly the plan. The fact it is only for passport holders makes it a challenge though. To play international rugby, you need three years’ residency, which is a good rule because otherwise countries would just hand out passports like sweets, as we have seen in athletics."