He came into the game contemplating retirement, but Matt Mills admits he may prolong his playing career after making an impact during his international debut on Friday night.
The Dubai Exiles flanker can now count himself among a select few who have represented the UAE at rugby – the schoolteacher started as Apollo Perelini’s side beat Gibraltar 28-15 in their only match of a curtailed 2017/18 calendar at Dubai Sports City.
Mills is just 29 but admits his body has been battered and bruised and left him feeling “more like a 50-year-old” during a career that brought him to the Emirates three years ago, where he is a now a PE teacher at Dubai English Speaking College.
Exiles returned to prominence this season, lifting the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens for the first time in 11 years in December, while they crowned their comeback campaign with the UAE Premiership trophy two weeks ago, beating Abu Dhabi Harlequins on the same field that Gibraltar were overcome on Friday.
All-action Mills would have seen more combat than most as part of Exiles’ formidable forward pack.
But he joked that if ever there was a reason to postpone a decision on hanging up his boots – earning the man-of-the-match accolade on his UAE debut as well as the promise of a first official cap in a year’s time could sway him.
“The match was very stop-start but played at a high intensity. It was great to play with some of the boys that I’ve had to tackle all season,” said Northampton native Mills.
“I think UAE rugby has taken a step up and is making the right moves towards where we want to be. Getting man of the match for the UAE on debut was a nice touch too.”
Victory against unranked Gibraltar required a lot of exertion on a muggy evening from a hugely talented yet very new-look UAE squad – of which Mills was one of seven Exiles.
All four of the UAE’s tries were scored by Exiles players – Gio Fourie, Durandt Gerber, Jaen Botes and Thinus Steyn crossing. Mills put in an understated but brilliant performance, setting up Steyn for the try of the match late in the contest that killed the visitors off.
Victory was bittersweet for the hosts, with Perelini putting together arguably the most talented squad of his tenure, and possibly the best UAE squad ever since they played their first international as a nation in 2011.
It came in a year in which they pulled out of playing in Division I of the Asia Rugby Championship – alongside the Philippines, Singapore and Sri Lanka in Manila in June – for as yet unexplained reasons.
It left Perelini scratching around for some meaningful fixtures at late notice for his squad, with the game against unranked opposition meaning it did not count as an official Test, so no caps were on offer for the players.
However, with the UAE Barbarians – essentially a team packed with potential future internationals approaching the three-year residency status – swatting aside a Gibraltar Development XV 64-0 on Thursday night, the future on the field looks bright for the nation ranked 70th in the world.
And with a possible return to Asia’s top table in 2019, Mills hopes to remain a part of the international picture.
“The man of the match and the debut, it means a lot,” admitted Mills.
“I’m looking forward to next year, if I haven’t retired by then. I’m sure a few more seasons won’t hurt. I hope there is a return to Asia competition, UAE rugby needs it if it’s going to keep moving in the right direction.
“Lots of my students and lads I coach were watching on Friday so it was nice to set an example and hopefully I’ll see some of them wearing the jersey soon.”
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