For someone who was named after the American rocket that first took man to the moon in the year he was born, Apollo Perelini’s belief that the sky’s the limit as far as his United Arab Emirates side’s Rugby World Cup hopes are concerned hardly comes as a surprise.
Victory over host nation Malaysia on Sunday in the opening round of the Asia Rugby Championship Division I would be one small step – with potentially 11 more to go – for the UAE on the journey to Japan 2019.
Having won the Division II title last year in emphatic style, UAE are a team on the up and are now eyeing a second consecutive promotion under former Samoan back-row Perelini in a bid to keep their RWC 2019 dream on track.
“I’ve worked out it’ll take us at least nine wins to get us to the World Cup. Anything is possible, but it’ll take a lot of hard work,” he said.
“You’ve also got to bear in mind that, if we win Division i and go up into the Top 3, we’ll be up against Hong Kong, who now have 40 centrally contracted professional players, while three-quarters of Korea’s squad are professionals. We don’t have any.”
Despite the progress made under Perelini, his band of ex-pats, from eight different countries, with three Emiratis thrown into the mix, are still way behind their divisional rivals in the World Rugby Rankings, lying in 72nd place. Malaysia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka are all ranked in the 50s.
“As far as I am concerned, we are all on the same level and the rankings don’t really matter,” he said.
“But we’re happy to go to Malaysia as underdogs and not put too much pressure on ourselves and just go out and play our game.
“Bear in mind, we’ve only been a union a little over seven years, and we are slowly getting things together. Before that, we were the Arabian Gulf, made up of five countries.”
Taken on by the UAE Rugby Federation in 2015 to implement a long-term strategy to make the national teams more competitive, Perelini almost tasted instant success when the UAE missed out on promotion from Division II by the narrowest of margins.
"It was a setback to lose to Malaysia in Division II in 2015 by just one point. Malaysia got promoted and we had to wait another year to win Division II to get to where we are now," he explained.
“I had one-on-one conversations with a number of players after last year’s victory (70-18 v Thailand) to gauge whether they were prepared to commit to an increased conditioning programme over the past year and I’m pleased to say they have, which is a big commitment for what are at best serious amateur players, not paid in any way. The squad has been training really well, with systems they haven’t tried at club level before.”
A 35-15 win against an UAE Premiership Select XV in Sharjah a fortnight ago has contributed to Perelini’s upbeat mood going into the Division I campaign.
“They were strong, from one to 15, and I was very happy with our performance. We stuck to our structures and came up with a good result,” the 47-year-old said.
“We are a lot further on than I thought we would be at this stage. Like I said, the players have responded well in training and we have some quality players in the team. We’re a better team than last year.
“Our focus is purely on winning all three games in Malaysia. Otherwise, it would defeat the object of going there. The boys are very confident.”
Should Perelini defy logic and the prohibitive odds against his side and steer the UAE to Japan, the former Sale rugby union and St Helens rugby league star would find himself in previously unoccupied territory. No-one has ever played and coached at both the Rugby World Cup and the Rugby League World Cups before, and only a handful – Martin Johnson, John Kirwan, Michael Jones and Kieran Crowley et al – have achieved the feat in union alone.
“To do the ‘double-double’ would be something special and unique," he admitted. “I played for Samoa in the 1995 Rugby League World Cup and then coached them in 2008."
It was for his exploits as a destructive flanker at Rugby World Cup 1991, however, that Perelini will forever be known. Western Samoa famously defeated Wales 16-13 in their first tournament, before beating Argentina 35-12 to reach the quarter-finals.
“That ’91 team is spoken about as the best-ever team to wear the blue of Samoa. The tournament changed the face of Samoan rugby and became part of folklore," he said.
“At the last World Cup, I had lunch with the All Blacks – guys like Ma’a Nonu, Jerome Kaino and Keven Mealamu – and they wanted their picture taken with me. They told me that I was one of their heroes when they were growing up.
“To hear that from guys who’ve played over 100 games for the All Blacks was very humbling and it made me realise that maybe I did do something special.”
Getting the UAE to Rugby World Cup 2019 would be on another stratosphere altogether, though, even for someone used to reaching for the stars.
Photo credit: Asia Rugby live / Alex Johnson (www.yallarugby.com)