2013 saw the return of the Belfast Exiles to the United Arab Emirates to compete in the Emirates Dubai Rugby 7s. The exiles are a team made of players from across Ulster and Leinster intent on touring to compete in the International Social Invitational section of the Dubai 7s. In 2012 the exiles made the quarter final of the cup competition and were determined to go further this year, with a new and rejuvenated squad. 6 of last years 12 players were retained and 6 new members introduced for the 3 day event taking place in Dubai. The trip was made possible by the generous support of 4 main sponsors, Dubai Duty Free, Inov8, The Irish Village Dubai, and Fexco.
The tour kicked off with the players meeting in Dublin airport,some of them for the first time before boarding the 7 hr flight to Dubai. Day one of the trip saw the Exiles train in what was an unusual environment for many of them. Due to the members of the squad coming from across Ireland, the opportunity for training prior to departure was minimal, so this provided a chance for them to work on some of the finer points of the 7s game. Following a relaxed evening the exiles were well rested and ready to compete in what was a strong group for the round robin stage of the competition. Day one of the tournament would see the Exiles compete in 3 challenging games to complete the group stage. The first game was against last years cup champions “Hunters”, in nearly 30 degrees of heat in the desert sun. 2012 tourist A.J. McConville failed a late fitness test on a troubled hamstring, and would sadly take no part in the tournament, but assumed the role of manager and chief coin tosser for the reminder of the matches. The well drilled and experienced Hunters side proved too strong for the boys from Belfast who eventually went down 41-0 (Hunters would have an eventual points difference of +168 from their 3 games) The points gap flatters the Hunters side slightly, but the game served as a learning point for the exiles, and showed them they needed to raise their game in order to compete. The boys were not disheartened and shook the loss off as they started to prepare for their second match against Lahore RFC from Pakistan. The Exiles took this game by the scruff of the neck from the start with Peter foley finding some space down the right touch line before offloading to new boy Mark Wylie for the Exiles first score of the tournament. The Exiles began to grow in confidence as the game went on with some great work in both attack and defense. Another new tourist Jack Newman showed good pace and strength at the beginning of the second half to go over for his first score and to stretch the Exiles lead. The eventual result 45-12 to the exiles, and they will have been annoyed to concede a few soft scores towards the end. With a win under their belt and growing in confidence the stage was set for the final group game against the “Old Rhinos”, the winner with a chance to progress further in the competition. The Exiles got off to a slow start and went down a score to a team containing some current international 7s players from Russia, the Netherlands, and Lebanon. However they rallied brilliantly,to come within one score before the half. Brendan Kennedy opened up the gas at the start of the second half to go from his own 10m line to score under the posts. The Exiles added a few more scores through Ross Gould and current Lebanon international Conor El Sibai, before running out comfortable winners 27-14. With two wins from three there was a nervous wait to see if the Exiles would qualify for the cup as one of the best 2nd placed teams. It went down to points difference and the Exiles were set to compete in the Plate competition for the remainder of the tournament. They will take some confidence from the fact that Hunters went on to win the cup conceding only 38 points for the whole tournament. The group stage brought the Exiles their first casualty, as powerful forward Matthew Slator suffered a nasty knee injury, to rule him out of day 2 of the tournament.
Day 2 would see the Belfast Exiles take on 7 Wonders from England. The late kick off provided some respite from the heat, and as the game got underway the Exiles looked comfortable on the ball from the start, producing some great rugby. Oskar Caneborg eventually found some space on the left touch line and showed the Wonders defense a clean pair of heels to cross the line from his own half. The bench was used to excellent effect with Peter Foley exploiting the tiring legs of the Wonders before the end of the 1st half. Captain Mark Robinson came on at half time to provide an injection of physicality, and wonderfully put Brendan Kennedy through a gaping hole in midfield for the exiles to extend their lead. Final score 36-7 and the Exiles were through to the Semi final against Plate favourites Dubai College Old Boys.
By this stage the Exiles had matured as a team and had shown that they could really play some rugby. Any frantic elements were now replaced by composure on the ball and sensible defense. The beginning of Day 3 saw the Exiles go in as underdogs against DC old boys, but this was a name tag they were happy to bear in what was essentially an away game with a hostile crowd. The players had the hairs on their necks lifted as Captain Robinson gave a rousing speech before kick off. What was said must have really stuck home because the Exiles came out fighting, against a larger and more physical DC side. Exerting continuous pressure on the DC line, Peter Foley eventually found some space up the middle, before cleverly offloading to the ever present Mark Wylie to cross the white wash untouched. Foley added another score almost immediately and the crowd was silenced. DC hit back with a score of their own before the half and were all of a sudden back in the game. Conor El Sibai provided the exiles with inch perfect restarts which allowed Robinson to put pressure on DC for possession. Ross Gould put in a crunching tackle to prevent DC from scoring early in the 2 nd half. Wylie and Foley both scored again to stretch the lead further. Half back Matthew Mullan showed some clever footwork to go through the line, but sadly his final pass was judged to be forward, disallowing a score that would have put the game out of reach. DC scored themselves but the exiles held on and the final score was 26-12. The Exiles had claimed a big scalp in the semi final after fantastic performances from all involved, and were of to the Final.
The Exiles had achieved more than any other touring team from Belfast has before, but wanted desperately to come home with some silver wear (or crystal as the case actually was). The Exiles went into the final against OLd Bristolians incredibly focused, and in front of a big crowd they were determined and motivated against a larger side. The game started in deadlock as the teams went at each other with the Exiles retaining most of the possession. Matthew Mullan put Mark Wylie through but again the referee called him back. Some deceptive running from Caneborg opened a hole for Kennedy to go through to eventually break the deadlock, taking his try total for the tournament to a team record of 9. Mullan superbly added the extras from the touch line to make it 7. Big winger Jordan Egan then opened up from the half way line, to stride over to extend the lead further. Bristolians tried to impose their physicality on the game, but failed to make much of an impact. El Sibai had to retire after a late shot to the neck from the OB prop. Egan would score again before the half to open a healthy lead. The second half started as the first ended with Egan grabbing another after some great team play. Mark Robinson lead from the front and Gould provided some great support play. The Bristolians frustration started to show as mistakes crept in and Egan would capitalise to take his tally to 4 for the game! Victory belonged to the Exiles on this hot day in Dubai and as the whistle went the celebrations started, the final score 29-0, and the Exiles were Plate Champions.
The celebrations continued long into the night, and after a days active recovery the boys from Belfast boarded the plane back to Dublin. They left not only as teammates, but also as friends and winners, having shared some special memories together. However, like any team that finds success the Belfast Exiles are no different, and preparations have already started for next year…….
Many thanks to Charlie Blackburn who submitted this report