Gulf rugby coach ready for UAE job

Bruce Birtwistle takes pride in the performance of Arabian Gulf. (XAVIER WILSON)

Head coach of the Arabian Gulf rugby team Bruce Birtwistle has thrown his hat into the ring to lead UAE’s campaign in the Asian Five Nations (A5N) tournament next year.

Having guided Arabian Gulf to historic wins over Hong Kong and South Korea in the Rugby World Cup qualifiers this season, Birtwistle is without doubt the logical choice to continue as UAE coach once the region’s governing body AGRFU (Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union) is disbanded this year.

“Obviously the sun has set on the Arabian Gulf. Andy Cole, the (AGRFU) chairman has asked me to put a paper together for the UAE (Rugby Association) which I will do,” said the New Zealander who is largely credited for transforming a bunch of amateur players into a potent unit.

With UAE almost certain to take the Arabian Gulf spot in the Premiership of the A5N next year, the former Auckland Suburbs loose forward is a strong contender to take over as UAE’s coach. “I seriously would like to get involved. I really enjoyed the experience this year. Rugby is something I’m passionate about. I like to see teams prosper and do well and I like to see players develop,” said Birtwistle, 44, in an exclusive interview with Emirates 24|7.

“I like to think that I had some part in the success we had this year but the players showed the dedication. We had a good group of senior players who were exceptional in terms of the atmosphere and the culture that we tried to create within the team because that’s the foundation,” said Birtwistle taking pride in the Arabian Gulf’s progress this season.

They lost to Kazakshtan 43-38, beat Hong Kong in Bahrain 16-9, travelled to Japan and lost 60-5 and beat Korea in last game 21-19.

“The first victories in the (A5N) Premier League was a big step for the players. They played extremely well. Korea was a team that was 20 places ahead of us in IRB (International Rugby Board) ranking. It was a huge victory for the guys,” said Birtwistle who also steered them to victories over Thailand and Chinese Taipei in his first season as coach last year which earned them promotion to the A5N Premiership.

How did he manage to instill self-belief in a side that were considered also rans? “We came together early on and the goal was to get to the Rugby World Cup. We did everything from that point on to give ourselves the best opportunity,” he said.

In the build-up to the competition, they had a warm up match against a Sri Lankan side, a local game against the best of the rest and another against Tunisia.

“If we had one more, the result may have been a little bit different against Kazakhs and I think we would have been just a little bit more prepared. We got a good start being 10-nil up but Kazakhstan came back into the game. You can see the belief in the guys when Kazakhstan took the lead. We actually came back twice but we just couldn’t quite get there,” he said.

He attributed this to a lack of experience. “We didn’t execute as well we should have done against Kazakhstan. We were probably about 10 minutes of good rugby away from actually getting through. I think the guys demonstrated that they can come together to compete at this level,” said Birtwistle who coached Waitemata to the Gallaher Shield club competition in Auckland.

“It did surprise some but we had some realistic expectations. We got to win two games and we did that at the end of the day. But in terms of where the group of players and management wanted to be we didn’t quite get there,” he said on falling short of qualifying for next year’s Rugby World Cup.

However, Birtwistle is relishing the prospect of being coach of UAE. “If I get the opportunity I will be doing it like I do any other side. You invest your time and energy in devotion to the group of players that are sitting in front of you,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter whether they are wearing the All Black jersey or UAE jersey, when you are the coach you do the best that you can with the group of players. I certainly cherish the opportunity to take the team forward and make sure we are as competitive as we can next season,” said Birtwistle who also coached the Auckland Suburbs senior team and enjoyed success with Auckland under 16 and Colts sides.

He was positive Emiratis would come through the system as rugby gains in popularity. “I think rugby is a wonderful game for young men particularly to get involved with. It is a physically and mentally demanding game. When you put the demands of mental, physical and skills together it is a challenging game. It is a perfect game for young men,” he said extolling the virtues of the sport.

Birtwistle debunked the myth that rugby is only for the physically tough guys. “There is a position for every body type. You can be tall and can play as a lock. If you are thicker set or are a more rounded person, you can play in the front row for scrummaging. If you are small, you can play half back or on the wing. If you are fit you are going to be a loose forward,” he said.

“There is a position for every body shape, that’s one of the beauties about rugby and obviously rugby is about promoting healthy living. Obviously there is an opportunity for the wider community to participate,” he added.

Being an amateur was also not a drawback if you have a professional approach, said Birtwistle. “While you are amateur and not getting paid for it, in terms of the way you prepare you’ve really got to adopt the professional mind set. So these guys spend time on the gyms, time on the practice pitches, work on their diets and prepare themselves as best they can,” he said attributing this to the success of Arabian Gulf.

“I’ve certainly witnessed over the last couple of years of the Arabian Gulf the change of attitude with the players. These players do want to be able to compete at the highest level. They want to do it for their own personal satisfaction but also part of the rugby culture that we build,” he said.

Birtwistle admits that rugby would be a hard sell in a region where football rules the roost. “That’s always going to be a challenge for rugby. But I think rugby offers something different. I’m enthusiastic about all sport and I think sport is an essential part of every young person’s life,” he said. “I think children need to be encouraged to play sport. Football is a wonderful game and it is the biggest game in the world but that is not a game for everybody.”

He underscored the need for rugby to be promoted in schools and the need for an academy. “I think certainly there is an opportunity to have a rugby academy here. At some point in time you have do some long term planning. Obviously you need to penetrate the schools to make sure there is a good level of competition available for them. They can see there is a path to follow to play international rugby and pull on the jersey to play for UAE,” he said.

Birtwistle feel touch rugby is a natural game for locals. “It’s not going to be the game that takes over the region but I think there will be growing interest in the game. I think there is a model to be rolled out in terms of schools here because it doesn’t have to be the full contact. Touch rugby is a natural step for young kids to get their ball skills going by running with the ball. That’s what the exciting part of the game is,” he said.