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How an Ulsterman ended up running out for Saudi Arabia

 

By Jonathan Bradley

With Ireland currently preparing for games against the USA and Japan, Ulster pair Jacob Stockdale and Kieran Treadwell will be hoping to make their international debuts in the coming weeks, but one man from the province has already beaten them to the punch this summer.

Nick Finlay, a construction worker from Enniskillen, has been in Saudi Arabia for the last 14 months, helping to build what will soon be the world's first kilometre-high building, the Kingdom Tower.

Having racked up plenty of air miles since captaining Portora to a Schools' Cup semi-final back in 2006, the 29-year-old has spent time with Natal Sharks Academy after finishing school, as well as a short spell with Eastern Suburbs in Sydney.

His latest journey has taken him all the way to an international cap after he started in the Saudis' recent win over Jordan.

After a number of Saudi select sides had taken the field in recent years, this was the country's first victory in a game sanctioned by Rugby Asia, although when Finlay flew out to the Middle East, rugby was naturally not his primary motivation.

"It's just the nature of the construction industry, you end up all over the place," he explained.

"A friend from Enniskillen told me about the work out here and I was on a plane two months later. It's a pretty cool project to be involved in.

"I think the previous biggest I worked on was three stories tall so it's a bit different.

"I probably applied thinking it was more the Dubai lifestyle than the Saudi lifestyle, but it's been great."

It was that quiet lifestyle in the desert country that had him quickly seeking out the local rugby club.

"Out in Jeddah, there's not many things to be doing," he said. "It's not known for it's nightlife, let's say.

"I looked online and found that there was a rugby club. I went down and trained for a few weeks at the end of last year and then had a full season this time.

"There's maybe 20 people training, normally around 10 Saudis and 10 ex-pats.

"It's the great thing, wherever you go in the world, you can find a rugby club and meet new people. It just got me in a much more social way of going on."

From there, the national call-up was the next step and he lined up, alongside Banbridge man Gareth Bell, as the Saudi side racked up a convincing 56-10 victory over their northern neighbours in front of hundreds of spectators.

"I think when Joe Schmidt didn't contact me for the tour to Japan I realised my international ambitions with Ireland were over," he joked.

"It was quite a surreal experience putting on the different green jersey. Perhaps as a kid growing up it wasn't the one I had dreamed of playing in, but it was a fun trip with a great bunch of guys and fantastic to be a part of the first-ever Saudi Arabia international win.

"The Saudis there that were involved were belting out the anthem while the rest of us stood alongside them.

"To be half way around the world and standing beside a Banbridge man, from an hour up the road, listening to the Saudi national anthem is certainly a memory I wont forget.

"I think the trip confirmed the amazing benefits of sport.

"No matter where in the world you are, there is always some local community club or team that brings people together.

"I have been lucky to travel the world and play rugby in many countries and the friendships I have made through the sport will last a lifetime."

But it was not, indeed, Finlay's first exposure to the national arena. Back in 2015, he was part of the Ireland Rugby League side that played Wales, Serbia and Malta.

Is he then Northern Ireland's only current international code-hopper?

"Yeah, after playing both the guys have started to say I'm the fat, Irish version of Sonny Bill Williams," he says with a laugh.

"When I was involved in League back home, it was pretty similar to what rugby is like here out in Saudi Arabia now actually.

"It was just sort of getting off the ground, we had to pay for our own kit and travel and stuff, but it was a great experience."

But what next for the well-travelled out-half?

"You might not believe it but I'm a homebird really," he says. "I'll be back to Enniskillen soon enough."

And when he does, there'll be quite a few stories for the boys in Mullaghmeen.

Belfast Telegraph

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