Ed Lewsey admits some pre-conceived, negative thoughts about the Middle East crept into his mind before he moved to the UAE.
Now, after six years in the desert, the 38-year-old has returned home with nothing but a head full of happy memories and lifelong friends to keep in touch with.
Lewsey, younger brother of former England international Josh, 40, came to the Emirates in 2011 after his own impressive playing career – he counts Exeter Chiefs among his former teams – was winding down due to injury.
Or so he thought. Then 32, he was quickly introduced to Abu Dhabi Harlequins after arriving in the capital. He went to training and his troublesome Achilles heel injury held up so he put his boots back on.
Fast forward to 2017 and Lewsey, who was head of rugby at the British School Al Khubairat, is now heading to take up a place as director of rugby at King’s College, Taunton.
And even though older brother Josh can count a Rugby World Cup winners’ medal as well as 55 England caps and three British & Irish Lions appearances under his belt – Ed has also enjoyed a bit of international stardom having won seven caps for the UAE.
“I’ve had a great six years, it’s been an adventure,” said Lewsey, who admits he grew up dreaming of playing scrum-half for Wales but claims he’ll happily settle turning out at nine for the UAE.
“I’ve made some great friends through work, rugby and socially and had some amazing experiences with school and rugby travelling abroad. It’s a great place to live as you’re three or four hours from a lot of places. It’s been wonderful and I’ll look back with great memories of this time.
“I came out here with my rugby days, my professional career coming to an end back home. It was a bit of a bonus to play rugby as I initially hadn’t intended on doing it. But I really missed the game and the social side, being part of a community.
“I was drawn down to the rugby club and it’s something I’ve done all my life so I very much felt at home.
To have played the last five or six years has been a real bonus, and especially playing for the UAE the last three years.
“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to represent this country and travel to places like Uzbekistan and Malaysia, and I’m very thankful for those opportunities. Now it’s time to say goodbye.”
As well as Exeter, Lewsey played for Plymouth Albion as well as a final injury-ravaged season in the UK with Lawnston. What he thought was the end of his playing days coincided with a teaching post in the UAE.
Lewsey, thinking it was time for a change, decided to take the plunge and admits he has no regrets – except for perhaps thinking it would be a good idea to go out for a stroll when he first arrived in the blistering August summer heat.
“I moved out into the brutal heat, which was quite a shock,” he said.
“I remember in my early days thinking it would be a good idea to walk to the fish market down by the port. It was three miles from my house so thought that was a good idea in 48 degree heat. You soon learn it’s different living out here.”
Aside from the 3,000 mile separating the UAE and UK, there are also contrasting cultural, religious and ethnic differences between the two countries. But Lewsey found out himself that many fears are unfounded.
He added: “A lot of westerners have these pre-conceived ideas when they come out here about what it’s going to be like. You hear about the laws and think it’s going to be quite strict. Then you find a rugby club and it’s a lot different from what you expect.
“The lifestyle we have, especially as teachers, is unattainable at home. Things you wouldn’t be able to do as easily or regularly.”
Ali Thompson, a former UAE captain, became a colleague at BSAK, and he was the one who introduced him to Quins and many of his friends who remain to this day, including Mike Ballard, the American who was left in a wheelchair when injured in Quins’ West Asia Cup final defeat to Jebel Ali Dragons in April 2014.
“Originally it was Ali, who’s been a big part of Abu Dhabi rugby (who introduced me),” said Lewsey, who revealed that the close and caring Quins community instantly made him feel at home and left him feeling the true strength of rugby’s worldwide familial and friendly reputation.
“We’ve been good friends for a long time at school and have worked together with the first team at BSAK. He was the one who got me down at Quins to training. My Achilles felt ok and then once you’re back into it the rugby gets faster but the ethos remains the same.
“I remember the first game was a pre-season tournament in Jebel Ali. Playing in September was a shock with the weather. It was great fun though and I remember playing with guys who I’m still friends with today. Ali, Patrick Heggarty, Mike, we met in our first week.
“We met the first night and we’ve had a really strong friendship ever since. I remember coming back on the bus and all the team; firsts, seconds, vets and ladies all singing songs and I knew I’d found a home from home.
“I remember being in the team that won it (the Dubai Sevens) for the first time in ages. The Sevens is a lot of fun. It’s the big event out here and just to be part of that, playing on the main pitch, is a great experience.
“I’ve won and lost a few times. It’s an electric weekend whether you win or lose or whether you’re playing or not. Winning games is great but we were all part of the same community whatever club you played for.
“We were all amateur players playing for fun for the enjoyment and camaraderie of rugby. It’s nice that that exists worldwide.”
Josh may be the sibling most people remember and recognize, but Ed admits the fact he can also call himself an international is a constant source of entertainment among the three Lewsey brothers – including eldest sibling Tom, who lives in Sydney.
A few Christmases ago, Lewsey revealed he asked him mum to frame his UAE jersey for him as a present, which she thought initially was a joke.
“There is some banter in the family with that,” he added.
“I asked mum, for a Christmas present, if she could get my UAE jersey framed. Initially I think she thought it was a joke. Within the family we also wind up my older brother who lives in Sydney as he’s the only non-capped sibling in the family.
“It proves you never know what might happen in life. We’re living away from home and you have to make the most of the opportunities, try things, get out there and experience things.
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