Sense of duty: Speranza22 handed over a cheque worth Dh40,000 to representatives of the Mike Ballard Foundation at Zayed Sports City last week.
A band of brothers that came together at the Emirates Airlines Dubai Rugby Sevens to honour a former Abu Dhabi Harlequins team-mate have raised Dh40,000 for another Quins player currently battling injury.
Speranza22 are a group of former Quins’ youngsters who made their Dubai debut in 2013 following the death of former comrade Marco Speranza.
Marco and his friends won the Gulf U18s tournament playing for Quins in front of 40,000 spectators at 7he Sevens stadium at the 2009 Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Although only two of the team now remain in the UAE, 11 of them came back to the Gulf last year to play in the International Open Men’s competition after Marco died in a plane crash in his native Argentina earlier that February – aged just 20. This year eight of them made the trip, flying in from all over the world, including New Zealand, Canada and the UK.The team named themselves after Marco and his birth date.
Speranza coach Rory Greene, also a youth coach with Quins, said it was a unanimous decision for the team to this year raise money for the Mike Ballard Foundation (MBF), a charity set up to support Mike and his family during his rehabilitation.
Ballard, a former Quin himself, suffered a spinal injury while playing in the ARFU West Asia Champion Club final against the Jebel Ali Dragons in April.
On Sunday, December 14, Greene and fellow Speranza and Quins youth coach Adam Hughes presented a cheque amounting to Dh40,000 to various representatives of the MBF. Ballard and Speranza played together at Quins in the American’s debut and the Argentine’s final season in 2011/12.
Greene said: “The money raised through sponsorship of the Speranza22 team and donations was made on the same pitch where Mike suffered his injury.
“To see how he has tackled his recuperation from the devastating spinal injury and already surpassed the expectations of his medical team shows what sort of individual Mike is and also the positive impact the Mike Ballard Foundation is having on his recovery.”
Ballard, fittingly, was back in the UAE earlier this month to see Quins lift the Gulf Men’s League title in Dubai. Greene added: “On Friday night (before the cheque presentation), at the Abu Dhabi Harlequins Christmas Ball, Mike, with the aid of leg braces and a walking frame, managed to walk to the stage, to a standing ovation from those present, and deliver an emotional speech where he thanked everyone at Quins for their support of the foundation.
“Speranza22 feel honoured to be a part of the MBF and to have helped in a small way in Mike’s rec-overy.”
Nine months after Marco’s death, his friends got to the semi-finals of the International Open Men’s competition in Dubai.
This year they were back again, championing their fallen friend by making it to the final, although they were disappointed to miss out on a perfect tribute to Marco as they lost 21-17 to Wyvern Harlequins in the final. Next year they are determined to go one better.
While Abu Dhabi Saracens admit they have taken a leaf out of rivals Harlequins’ book in terms of youth development, they want their own blueprint to surpass what their city neighbours have achieved.
Sarries’ Little Ruckers youth development programme has already attracted over 200 children and been rolled out to seven Abu Dhabi schools.
Five new schools are set to open their doors to the club in 2015 and coach Steve Hamilton believes the number of kids training under the Sarries’ banner could soon reach 350. He’s also not ruling out one day surpassing the numbers in Quins’ youth ranks, believed to be over 650.
“We’ve followed the Quins’ standard with Little Ruckers but we want to meet and then surpass that standard,” said Hamilton.
“I think there’s scope to have 700 kids as part of the Sarries’ family.”
Hamilton arrived from the UK at the beginning of the season and says Little Ruckers has already made huge strides in his short time here. “Kids are interested in rugby and the feedback from everyone, especially parents, has been great. We’re seeing 200 kids a week so there’s a big demand for youth rugby here in the UAE,” said Hamilton.
“The strongest message Little Ruckers is sending out is that the growth of the junior network is brilliant for the sustainability and growth of Sarries as a club.”
He described the link between Sarries in Abu Dhabi and back in the UK as the “lynchpin” to Little Ruckers’ future.
“We can be a real resource for the club out here,” he said.
“Saracens in the UK send their younger players to teams in the lower leagues or to Europe, so why not add Abu Dhabi to that map?”
Little Ruckers is just over a year old and Hamilton singled out head youth coach Will Walker: “We’re a small team and Will is the absolute cornerstone of that.”