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09 June 2023

Confidence and belief closes Gulf

Charlie Keenan, Arabian Gulf Assistant coach (SUPPLIED)

By Ahmad Lala

Arabian Gulf Assistant coach Charlie Keenan predicts the team are "going to do really well" at the Dubai Rugby World Cup Sevens next weekend.

The local side find themselves in a tough group against New Zealand, Tonga and Italy, but the Scot believes the Gulf can win two of their three group games when the tournament begins on Thursday.

"It's a very realistic goal," said Keenan, who will be assisting head coach Mike Lunjevich. "I think Tonga are really strong, which is the one thing I'm worried about, but in the Wellington tournament recently, there were two small nations that beat Tonga and Samoa. We are a minnow side, but looking at the teams in our group it's possible, very possible.

"We will definitely win one of the three games – hopefully two of the three."

Stephen Cooper, the Arabian Gulf captain, shares the same sentiments with his coach: "Definitely Charlie has a good reason to be confident just in the progress the boys have shown. We have always had the physical preparations and just lacked the belief, but since the Dubai Sevens [last November] that has increased as well.

"You can be as well prepared as you like, but if you lack that extra 10-15 per cent upstairs you're never going to achieve those goals.

"We are quietly confident. I'm not going to tell you we're going to just show up and win, we understand we have to be 100 per cent ready for what's coming our way."

Keenan reveals he has witnessed a definite change in attitude in the side that lost all three of their group games in the Dubai IRB Sevens series. Beating Georgia 22-12 on the second day of that tournament could have played a part.

"They are more structured now, whereas before they may have thought: 'Okay we go to rugby training and just train and then play games'," said the former Scotland sevens player.

"I have tried to bring in a different mix by cutting the rugby down to individual parts and focusing on different things.

"They have taken really well to that and enjoy coming to training. For example training is supposed to start at 7:30pm, but they're turning up at 6:30pm and we're starting at 7pm – purely because they just want to get on with it.

"We played against Kenya recently and they couldn't believe the change – probably in the attitude and commitment of the players – so we're going in the right direction."

The skipper, meanwhile, identifies the Georgia game as the major turning point: "Once you have got that win, it changes everything. You see players talking, running with the ball and the belief is there.

"Sevens is a very simple game, but it can be a bloody nightmare if you don't do the basics right."

So does Cooper think the team will translate their new newfound belief into silverware in the Plate or Cup categories

"Realistically, I'm only thinking about day one, where obviously we have strategies in place to what we want to achieve in each and every match.

"We are going to play to our strengths and not worry about what the opposition are doing and, hopefully, if we can achieve that we will get positive results. But there is definitely a goal to come home with some silverware, because it will be first for any Arabian Gulf side playing in an IRB competition. So what better place to do that than at the World Cup?"