Mike Cox-Hill And A Tale Of Two Teams

Published On: 5 Jul 21By 8.3 min read
Visit YallaRugby.com for up to date scores and league table standings
Visit YallaRugby.com for up to date scores and league table standings

There aren’t too many people, who can lay claim to being the first ever captain of an international sports team, but when you can also boast to being the last ever captain of a different international sports team, it must be something of a unique feat.

And yet for Mike Cox-Hill, it’s just part of the rugby journey, having had the distinguished honour of captaining the Arabian Gulf Rugby side for their final Asian Five Nations (A5N) campaign in 2010, before leading the UAE’s maiden voyage in the same championship the following year.

Following our look back at UAE rugby’s competitive international debut in 2011, we took the opportunity to delve a little deeper with the team’s skipper – affectionately known in rugby circles as ‘China’ – on his memories of that historical season, as well as the final days of the Arabian Gulf era.

Having debuted for the Gulf representative side that won promotion back to the top tier of the Asian Five Nations (A5N) in 2009, Cox-Hill took over the captaincy from close friend Dave Clark the following season, but according to the ex-second row, leading the UAE was a very different challenge.

“The primary focus for me was in managing expectations,” explains the former Hurricanes and Exiles player of 2011. “2010 was the most successful campaign for the Arabian Gulf, in getting two wins, and we should have closed out the game in Kazakhstan to finish second behind Japan.”

“With the Gulf, we had leaders in key positions all over the field, who didn’t need much direction, so my primary role was to concentrate on my own game, call the plays and maintain focus.”

“Going into 2011 was more daunting, because so many of those senior players from the Arabian Gulf side had retired or weren’t available – Mark Gathercole, Byron Kraemer, Jonny Macdonald, Taif Delamie, Karl Sutcliffe, Rory Power and James Love, to name a few – so my role evolved to driving more of the leadership, culture and ethos.”

“Thankfully, a core of the players and the coaches remained, but a lot of the backroom staff that had been in charge for a long period, who knew how to arrange everything and had a record of getting results, were gone, so we lost a lot of experience in that regard.”

“Like all things new, it takes a little while to find your feet, so from my perspective, it was ensuring the players had the right mindset, understood the game plan and worked to develop our own culture.”

“I was determined to ensure we transitioned from the Arabian Gulf to the UAE without losing momentum in terms of results, and to prepare the next generation of players and leaders to take the team forward.”

 
 

Although UAE Rugby was a very different entity than what had gone before, Cox-Hill openly admits he tried to take as much as he could from his experiences with Arabian Gulf Rugby, to drive momentum for the new outfit.

“I was determined to ensure we transitioned from the Arabian Gulf to the UAE without losing momentum in terms of results, and to prepare the next generation of players and leaders to take the team forward.”

“There was an unspoken bond between those involved in 2010, because we knew we had achieved something pretty special, and that was also a big motivator for the new guys coming in, because they had seen what we had done and what was possible.”

“They saw this is a massive opportunity to prove themselves at a higher level and that spurred everyone to work hard and push each other in training, in warm up games and in club games against each other.”

Looking back on that Sri Lanka game in particular, the competitive nature in Cox-Hill hasn’t diminished, as he still sees it as a missed opportunity.

“On paper at least, Sri Lanka was the easiest game of the A5N campaign. I knew if we didn’t get a result there, we could be relegated from the top division and the big concern was that we would undo the hard work of the previous campaign,” he says.

“We could have won the game, but overall, I think a draw was a fair result considering all elements. We were probably lucky to get the draw in the end and only on reflection did we realise how important that result was.”

“I think the new players were probably happier with the result, but those from 2010 and the coaching team were initially disappointed,” he goes on.

“Our goal was never to just get a cap, it was important to win in the shirt, not just pull it over your head, and I knew personally that 2011 was my final year before retiring, so I wanted to win, especially in the first game of the tournament.”

“It was an honour to represent the UAE National team and being skipper with the coaching staff and wider playing group we had is a fond memory, but I would still have liked to see a win on the scoreboard, rather than a ‘C’ beside my name on the team sheet.”

Thankfully for Cox-Hill and co, they didn’t have to wait too long to get that first win on the board for UAE Rugby, as they defeated Kazakhstan the following week, which was ultimately enough to secure their position in the top division, but the season ended in disappointing fashion thereafter.

“We played poorly against Japan and our lack of experience was really exposed,” he says, frankly. “I think they wanted some revenge for (the Arabian Gulf) having made life difficult for them the year before, but losing by 100 points was never in the script. It’s great that they have gone on to break into the top ten in the world, but we should have been a better test in that fixture.”

“There was an element of revenge about the final game against Hong Kong as well and after the Japan loss, a lot of the energy in the team had been sapped, and they beat us convincingly in the end.”

“It seemed like a game too far for the new squad, but it was amazing to think of the journey that we had been on with the UAE, and some fond memories and lifelong friendships were made.”

“It was obvious that there was a great heritage and a bond that had been developed by the group and it made me really want to be part of it.”

 
 

In speaking of friendships and memories made, the Arabian Gulf campaign of 2010 is never far from Cox-Hill’s thoughts and it becomes clear what that part of the story means to him.

“Arriving in the UAE in 2005, I saw many of my clubmates playing for the Arabian Gulf for several years before I qualified. It was obvious that there was a great heritage and a bond that had been developed by the group and it made me really want to be part of it.”

“In 2010, knowing it was the final season, there was a sense of duty to do the shirt justice and it was a massive honour to captain the side, given those that had played for and captained the team before.”

“So many people had vested interests in that campaign, from the legends and former players watching from the stands but also plenty of others, who might not have ever played, but were part of the AGRFU family, having given so much to Gulf rugby over a number of years, so we had to deliver for all of them as well.”

“After blowing a 17-0 lead in the opening game in Almaty (eventually losing 43-28 to Kazakhstan), beating Hong Kong in Bahrain was an unbelievable high, especially given the involvement of the Bahrain club over the years.”

“We had high expectations to win that game and it seems the only ones who didn’t were the opposition, but they were very gracious in defeat and admitted they had underestimated us.”

“We had spent the previous five weeks playing international rugby and forming some of the closest bonds I have ever had and yet people outside that had no idea what we had been doing”

 
 

“Going to Japan for the next game, we knew getting a result would be highly unlikely, but we felt we had a strong enough squad to compete,” Cox-Hill goes on.

“With the score at 0-0 after 20 minutes, their coach and All Black legend, John Kirwin, came down to the side-line and started shouting instructions, so we knew we had given them a real scare.”

“Their professionalism and fitness ultimately pulled them through and in the media room after the game, the local journalists and TV crews were amazed at how we had performed as amateurs.”

“The build-up and the jersey presentations for the final game against Korea were really emotional, as we knew that the curtain was being drawn on what was a fantastic institution,” he continues.

“I honestly never thought about the opposition for that game, or the fact that they were ranked twenty-odd places above us, I just knew that we would carry out our roles and responsibilities with absolute commitment and on that basis, I never doubted we would win.”

“We had a scare at the end, where they got a try in the corner, but thankfully the resulting kick fell short, and we won with a two-point margin.”

“Going into work on the Sunday after that game was surreal. We had spent the previous five weeks playing international rugby and forming some of the closest bonds I have ever had and yet people outside that had no idea what we had been doing or what we had achieved.”

Many people may still have no idea about the roller-coaster of a ride Cox-Hill and his various teammates went on in 2010 and 2011, but it certainly makes for one hell of a story.

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