When Ed James, an Englishman who speaks with a slight Welsh valleys twang, reflects on his childhood spent growing up in the rugby-mad town of Bridgend – he admits it was tough.
But that’s nothing compared to how tough it must have been for the winger when he took the decision to retire, aged just 27, earlier this year following a sickening injury suffered while playing for Dubai Exiles in a West Asia Premiership fixture against Bahrain in January.
James doesn’t remember anything from the actual incident that saw him knocked out in a freak collision with an opponent who had been tackled by an Exiles team-mate. That is probably a blessing in disguise considering he discovered afterwards he almost choked on his own blood and medics at first found him unresponsive.
“The incident I have no recollection of,” said James. “From what I gather we were defending. There was a decoy runner coming down my inside man’s channel, my team-mate tackled the decoy runner who then collided with me. It was a heavy collision and we were both knocked out.”
Collisions are attritional aspects of rugby’s nature. But no-one in Saar was prepared for what this one would lead to.
James added: “In the contact I somehow severed an artery in my lip. There was blood gushing everywhere out of my mouth. And because I was knocked out I started swallowing my own blood and started having a seizure apparently. One thing after another.
“Luckily there was a doctor at the ground. She had to clear my airways but I’d stopped breathing. She’d taken a pulse and apparently I didn’t have one so she had to cut my shirt open and start resuscitating me.
“I had no idea this was going on, which was probably a good job. I couldn’t believe it when someone told me later on, it’s such a freak accident.
“I was conscious being stretchered off the pitch apparently but I don’t remember that. The first thing I remember was being in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and then passed out again and had another seizure.”
Despite not having to live with vivid recollections of the incident, hearing about what had happened would be enough to put anyone off playing again. But the Guilford-born James admits he would have wanted to return to action for Exiles – had it not been the opposite of what everyone else wanted.
“It wasn’t my decision,” added James, who admits mum Andrea and girlfriend Milli were influential in his decision.
“The doctors advised me to retire. After what happened my mum, girlfriend, sister, grandmother, it was pretty serious and they said they’d never forgive me for going back.
“As much as I’d love to go back I can’t be selfish, there’s other people to consider. I probably could if I really wanted to but I’m not even sure if Jacques (Benade, Exiles director of rugby) and the guys would want to see me back after witnessing what they saw. So, I’m happily retired.”
James is lucky his family actually live in the UAE so didn’t have to make emergency plans to fly out from the UK to see him after his injury. After living in Wales until he was 17, moving there after dad Mark accepted a job with British Airways in Cardiff, James’ family moved to the UAE where they’ve been for 10 years.
James works in marketing for Al Naboodah Group Enterprises in Al Awir, having attended the University of West England in Bristol after his parents made the move to the Gulf.
James does admit he has felt the itch to return with the local rugby season kicking off in the last month. But he’s grateful the game of rugby fosters a family atmosphere whether you’re playing or not.
“As much as everyone loves the game you can’t play forever,” he said.
“Even if you can’t play it’s still one big family so that bond won’t change whether I’m playing or not.
“It wasn’t too difficult at first but it’s been a bit hard with the season kicking back off and going down to watch the games has been a bit bittersweet. I’ve started to get the itch.
“I’m still playing some touch so I’m not completely lost from the game, but it is a bit tough not having the choice to go back there. But I’ve had plenty of good times in rugby so I’m happy with my lot.
“I miss the social side and the bonding, training during the week as it breaks the week up. The togetherness.”
As if to rubberstamp James’ point, he is quick to take a moment to thank Dr Amy Bowzaylo, the medic on duty that day in Bahrain, who he is in no doubt, the reason he is still here.
“She’s an amazing lady, I owe her a lot,” he said.
“I spent a week in Bahrain to recover and have more tests. They weren’t sure if I had brain damage so didn’t want to risk putting me in a high pressure aeroplane cabin.
“Once I was released from hospital Amy actually took me in to her house and looked after me for the week. After the hospital cleared me after two or three nights she took me in until I was medically cleared.
“I don’t know what laws there are with doctors and ambulances on standby at games. But if that doctor wasn’t there it could have been very different for me. I was very lucky and she saved my life.
“I think that should be mandatory because even though it was freak it could be different for someone else and the difference between living or dying.”
In addition to Dr Bowzaylo, James also has plenty of praise for how he’s been treated by Exiles during an arduous few months.
“The club were brilliant as soon as I got back. They covered all the costs and supported me anyway they could,” he said.
“I still speak to Jacques relatively regularly and everyone asks how I’m doing. I initially spoke to Jacques about doing a bit of coaching as he was keen to keep me involved, but right now I don’t have the time.”
An ethics row has erupted after Abu Dhabi Harlequins accused Dubai Exiles of loading a second team fixture with first team players.
The spat was initially sparked on social media yesterday between members of the rival clubs – as well as others – following Exiles 2nds 34-5 victory over Quins 2nds on Friday night.
A number of first team players featured in Exiles’ win at Zayed Sports City – including the likes of powerhouse South African hooker Gio Fourie, former England Under-18 international centre James Crossley and flanker Matt Mills – with the West Asia Premiership on a bye weekend.
Quins say as many as nine senior Exiles stars were dropped into the second team for the game, with the club’s assistant coaches Rory Greene and Ali Thompson entering into a Twitter war of words with Exiles chairman Mike Wolff – and the ploy labeled “ethically wrong”.
Other clubs and players became embroiled in the argument, with suggestions put forward that the practice – completely legal as far as UAE Rugby’s rules and regulations are concerned – should be reviewed by the game’s governing body in the Emirates.
“They’re messing about with the rules and regulations,” said Quins chairman Andy Cole.
“They’re not breaking any rules but it’s down to morality, if it happened in our club I wouldn’t be very happy as I just don’t think it’s right.
“We could have done the same obviously but it’s not what we’re about. I guess it’s why we’re the only club to have four teams in the leagues this season. But they haven’t broken any rules.”
Cole said teams are experimenting in the early weeks of the season with the arrival of new players over the summer as they work out new systems. And he feels it is actually a compliment to Quins’ second team who are the reigning UAE Conference champions.
“Until you’ve played a number of games you don’t really have first and second team players so you can move them about,” added Cole.
“It’s a difficult one because you have new players coming in during the summer you might not know if he’s a first or second team player. But you’ve got a good idea.
“It comes down to how badly you want to win, but our club’s not about that. We could also take it as a compliment too. The fact they have to stack the second team high to win, it’s a compliment to our second team boys.”
Article 9 of the UAE Rugby Federation’s competition regulations addresses the issue of senior players featuring in lower divisions. The only requirement clubs must adhere to is that for any first team player to qualify for a second team final, they must have started five or more matches for the second team.
Exiles chairman Wolff responded by saying he found it “laughable” that Quins were upset by a ploy he claimed they utilised to their advantage against Exiles on the way to the Conference title last season.
Exiles beat Quins 41-5 on the opening weekend of the Conference season last term, with Quins gaining revenge with a 51-3 victory in the Top 6 stage in February.
And Wolff says on that day, several Quins first team stars featured in victory after being refused visas to travel with the senior squad to play Doha.
“I find it laughable the Twitter spat, it’s hypocrisy as last year a number of players couldn’t go to Doha so a number of southern hemisphere players ended up playing against our twos and we got pumped,” said Wolff.
“But we didn’t squawk about it. It’s in the rules and we sucked it up.
“I’m a firm believer of operating within the rules. Some people have said it’s against the ethics. Send me that code of ethics because to my mind we have the rules and regulations which were on the agenda post-season two years ago, which lay everything out clearly, and were agreed by all the clubs and it’s what we’ve got.
“It’s much ado about nothing. I find it hypocritical when it works in their favour one year.”
Wolff added that several alleged first team players who featured in the capital on Friday are short on match fitness while revealing the second team had to call on first team colleagues with 12 absences.
“We had 12 players unavailable through injury, work or compassionate reasons,” said Wolff.
“A chunk of them were second players. Players like Stephen Ferguson are first-team players but he’s had his arm in a sling for three weeks because he had an operation to remove an abscess on his arm. He’s not played a single game this season yet.
“We had some players playing in different positions too to see if they could play as emergency cover in those positions.”
The biggest regret of Matthew Pewtner’s promising but ultimately brief rugby career was that he never got to feature for Wales at the Dubai Sevens.
The sevens specialist played nine tournaments around the world on the glamourous sevens circuit but injury robbed of him an appearance at one of the most popular. So it is with a wry smile the rugby talent turned coach and school teacher speaks about his new role as Dubai Hurricanes backs coach at training at the Sevens Stadium on the eve of the 2017/18 rugby campaign – in the shadow of the very venue he’d always dreamed of playing in.
Concussion forced Pewtner, 26, to quit rugby 18 months ago after medical advice, having represented Wales at sevens and under-20 level – as well as nearly 50 appearances for the Newport-based Dragons from 2009-16.
The former winger admitted he was “lost” for a few months after reality bit that he would never be allowed to play competitively again. But then he took the plunge and accepted a teaching post at GEMS World Academy. That led to him getting in contact with Canes and he’s quickly become a member of the club’s family.
“Unfortunately my career got cut short and I was a bit lost for a few months, I didn’t really know what to do,” recalled Pewtner.
“But then I decided to take the plunge and come to Dubai. I got a good job teaching in GEMS and I sent an email to the Canes as it looked like a really good set-up, asking if there were any coaching opportunities as it was something I’d been doing alongside my teaching career and something I want to do in the future.
“Fortunately they were in the market for a coach so it’s been quite a nice transition.
“I’ve been here five weeks and it’s been great. The school has helped, I’ve met a lot of friends there, but the biggest help has probably been coming to the Canes.
“Rugby is a game you can play anywhere in the world and as soon as you’re in a team part of a family straight away. It’s the nature of the game.”
The irony of putting nearly 50 players through their paces at The Sevens’ Pitch 2 – just a stone’s throw from the main Sevens Stadium, which will be teaming with rugby fans from around the world in just two months’ time – isn’t lost on Pewtner.
“One of my biggest regrets is not playing in the Dubai Sevens having been selected twice,” added the Newport native, whose career was cut short after he failed to recover from a head injury he suffered during the Premiership Sevens in August 2015.
“I signed with the Dragons when I was 17. When I was 21 I had a dual developmental contract with the Dragons and Wales. And over two seasons I did nine sevens tournaments.
“I did all of them except Dubai. I got selected for Dubai but before the one I pulled my hamstring and then the following year I broke my thumb so injury stopped me from coming here. I did Wellington, Hong Kong, Vegas, Japan, South Africa and the UK ones and France too.
“The first time (I missed out on Dubai) in particular was a regret as I’d just had a really good pre-season, was really fit and it was a really good time for me in my sevens career. The hamstring went a day before we flew and I’d always wanted to play in the Dubai Sevens.
“It’s weird a few years later I’m coaching the team next door to the stadium I should have played in. I’m doing the next best thing.”
The 15s format of the game takes precedence for Canes now – who are looking to improve after a few seasons in the wilderness but with confidence high under director of rugby Mike Werhham.
And Pewtner is happy to be part of a club looking to improve in all formats – with an eye especially on the Sevens where he’ll lend his sevens expertise to Canes, as well as coaching his school side.
“I’ll look forward to it now as a coach and I’ve heard it’s one of the best weekends of the year out here,” he said.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing a lot of old faces. Obviously I know the Welsh boys but also I know a lot of the players from other countries so it will be really good to see some familiar faces. I will be coaching Canes and also my school team. It’s going to be a good weekend.”
Having lived and breathed rugby as a day job for most of his adult life, Pewtner admitted he didn’t have too much knowledge of the popularity of the sport in the UAE. But he revealed he’s been hugely impressed with the Canes set-up since his arrival earlier this summer.
“Obviously when I played it was our job so we worked and trained every day,” he said.
“But it’s really nice to see here that even though the boys train twice a week, they’re putting in the hours away from the paddock in the gym too and when we’re here, it may only be an hour and a half but it’s a really good quality hour and a half.
“As a management team we structure our trainings really well and they are planned accurately so there’s no time wasted and we make the most of all the time we get on the field.
“I think the set-up is really good, really professional, I’d be surprised if there’s a more professional set-up than what we have.
“I was a bit surprised turning up the standard. The biggest shock was the sheer numbers. Back in Wales the game is the national sport but even local teams there would have 20 boys at training and that would be a good number.
“I turned up here at my first session and there was 45 players, which was awesome. And players from all over the world too, northern and southern hemisphere players, loads of people coached very differently, so it’s nice bringing them together.
“The standard is really high and hopefully as coaches we can take them to their highest potential.”