Jebel Ali Dragons will perhaps be looking forward to the new 2017/18 season more than most clubs. In addition to a return to prominence last term under the guidance of Henry Paul, the club are also looking forward to celebrating their 25th anniversary next season.
The senior men’s side will be kicking off the new UAE and West Asia Premiership campaign on September 22 with a mouthwatering repeat of last season’s UAE Premiership final as they welcome defending champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins to the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence on opening day.
But there will be a very special day to celebrate the club turning a quarter of a century to welcome in September, as Dragons raise the curtain for the new campaign.
The club will be open for all Dragons players, staff, friends and family on September 8. The club have a full day planned for all the family as well as three cracking warm-up games planned for all three senior sides.
The day begins at 09:00 with players and families invited to enjoy the facilities at Jebel Ali Hotel, before the club’s new kit is unveiled and presented to players at 11.30, with player and team photos to be taken.
Dragons 3rds, reigning UAE Community League champions, kick off the match action at 15:00 as they play a Joining Jack Select XV. At 17:00 it’s the turn of Dragons 2nds who will play Dubai Sharks, and the day draws to a close with the seniors taking on newly-established club, Dubai Sports City Eagles, at 19:00.
Throughout the day refreshments will be available, so why not invite family and friends to enjoy a day out in the sun and celebrate 25 years of Dragons.
Although the summer sporting scene can often be as barren as the landscape that surrounds it, Mike Wernham says Dubai Hurricanes players and staff have been busy as they look forward to the new season.
Canes have been taking to the training fields this week for the first time, but Wernham revealed his players have been working hard in the gym for well over a month, while there’s also been activity behind the scenes too as he and the club look to push on ahead of his first full season at the helm.
“Since finishing the season it’s been non-stop behind the scenes,” said an upbeat Wernham.
“Chairman, new board, secretaries, new coaching staff, we’ve been hard at it, from pre-season plans to protocols, sponsors, kit design. There’s been a lot of work going on. Like other clubs we’ve lost some sponsors but we’ve got some new ones also.
“Some have come with good deals for all our members and the first team, including gym memberships at Base 3 in JLT. It’s a great space and the guys have been hard at it for a month two or three times a week at club sessions, working with strength and conditioning coach, Simon Seward.
“As an amateur club you need an injection of players and fortunately so far we’ve had on average 45 players attending sessions, so that’s looking good for growth. We’ve picked up a few new players as well.”
Wernham took over from James Ham halfway through the campaign and he felt there were improvements. Canes still labored in comparison to Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Bahrain, Doha and Jebel Ali Dragons, finishing well behind in the West Asia Premiership (6th) and UAE Premiership (3rd).
Canes conceded more tries than any other team last season and that’s something the man in charge is keen to rectify.
“The guys are excited to be back. They’ve had their break,” he said.
“Numbers grew from January and we’re excited about the challenges ahead. We’ll be changing up a lot of our structures, strike patterns and just want a bit more consistency. We conceded more tries than anyone last season. Our defence is one of our big targets to improve on.
“We know we’ve got a lot of attacking flair, victories over Dubai Exiles prove that. We lost by five at Quins and were drawing with Bahrain (before losing) and beat Dragons at home.
“We know we have good performances in us and can play some good rugby, we just need to get the consistency in our defence. Everyone wants to get bigger, faster, stronger, but the key aim for our strength and conditioning coach is to get fitter.
“We have to be realistic, players are full time workers so it’s about getting the balance right. We’re hoping for a successful season on and off the pitch.”
Recruitment has gone well over the summer, but Wernham insists there is always room for more additions.
He added: “As a club our message is about the experience we try and give. We want people to be coming here with smiles on faces ahead of training, enjoying the social side. Numbers are good but we always welcome more.
“It’s definitely a club for you and your family. We welcome all sorts and we provide for everyone. If you want a level playing field with some of the best facilities, great lads and coaches, and great set-up from top to bottom. Get yourself down there.”
Louie Tonkin can be mightily proud of his first season at the helm of Bahrain. His team cast aside years of mediocrity by surging to prominence in 2016/17 – finishing third in the West Asia Premiership and pushing Abu Dhabi Harlequins mightily close in the West Asia Cup final.
But Tonkin admitted he learned some harsh lessons over the course of his debut campaign in the desert. And, rather than sit and admire the progress he has orchestrated in the Kingdom, he is determined for Bahrain to push on further and challenge Quins, the reigning kings of Gulf rugby, next term.
Tonkin has returned to Bahrain after a few weeks’ holiday back home in his native Wales, and the 34-year-old has delved into his Welsh contacts book for much of his summer recruitment.
Centre Iwan Phillips, fly-half Ross Preedy, centre/wing Graham Bishop, flanker Rhys Fitzgerald and second row Jonathan Kenny have either played for Tonkin before in previous roles as Cardiff University or Pontypool head coach, or have top division Welsh Premiership experience.
Back rower Elliot Beehan and three other recruits from last summer who all suffered season-ending injuries have returned to fitness, while Greg Heath, Deina Morete and Davis Tui have re-signed with the club.
Apart from strengthening his squad over the summer, Tonkin revealed one of the key things he took from last season was getting to grips with players’ employment opportunities once they arrive in the Middle East.
“We’ve recruited a few, but we learned some key lessons last year in terms of the type of players we need to recruit in Bahrain,” admitted Tonkin.
“I came in from the cold and didn’t know the lay of the land, with things like employment opportunities. So we’ve based recruitment around that. Graduates who are highly educated rugby players.
“We’ve managed to build really, really good relationships with fantastic employers and all the guys coming out are walking into great opportunities, which is really positive, and an easy sell from our perspective too.
“All but one of the guys I’ve worked with before. Three are guys who were in my Cardiff University team two years ago and have all played with semi-professional teams in Wales.
“Jonathan is a big second row who we’re hugely excited about. He played for Bridgend last season and had a few games for Ospreys A in the British & Irish Cup, so he comes with a wealth of experience.
“Iwan is a great player from Cardiff Uni and Bedwas. He spent last season out in Kowloon in the Hong Kong Premiership with his brother. He’s a good player and is keen to increase his rugby experience.
“Ross is a really good back, he was my varsity 10 and has played with me at Pontypool. Rhys has played at Cross Keys, is a really dogged flanker and has played rugby league for Wales and Graham who I also signed at Pontypool. They’re all good characters and fit the bill out here.”
Most of the injuries the club sustained came right at the beginning of the season, just at a time when they were starting to build momentum. And Tonkin praised his players for still being able to produce a fine season – something he is intent on replicating and even improving upon.
“Last year had some significant injuries. First and foremost they’re all back fully fit which is a huge boost as they’re all fantastic players,” added Tonkin.
“Unlike other clubs we haven’t got the numbers due to the lack of foot-fall in Bahrain so we were lucky to have performed well with a lightweight squad. We had 24/25 players at elite level.
“The focus (this summer) has been on increasing the depth and working with the guys slightly below that, to bring them up a level in terms of standard, and recruiting in the right areas to give us a 32-man squad.
“The teams that were successful (last season) were the ones with big squads. We played Quins three times and didn’t play against the same back line once, they have such depth and quality. We really need to increase both of those areas across the squad.”