Abu Dhabi Saracens are on the search for a new home, but they will not find it at the revamped Sheikh Zayed Stadium – at least not for now.
Sarries, already rocked by the departure of a host of stars at the start of the summer, were dealt another bombshell last week when Al Ghazal Golf Club was shut – casting uncertainty on whether they will be able to keep playing their home matches at the rugby pitch located adjacent to the club in the shadow of Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Sheikh Zayed Stadium – home of the UAE cricket team and Pakistan since 2010 – is undergoing renovation to make it more accessible to more sports in the capital. This has seen work begin on laying two FIFA-standard full-size football pitches which will be used for teams to train at Decembers’ Club World Cup – at which Real Madrid will compete.
Touch is already played on the academy cricket ovals, and the facility’s administrators say the long-term goal of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council-run revamp is to allow more sports to be hosted at the venue, including football, athletics and possibly even rugby.
John Larkins, who runs UAE Touch and whose roots are embedded in rugby, is working alongside Abu Dhabi Cricket and the Abu Dhabi Sports Council. And he says all concerned parties will try to do everything they can to help Sarries, although he has ruled out the venue hosting their games – at least in the early part of the season.
“We’ll definitely be able to help them out with the pre-season stuff. We’ll help them out with all of the junior stuff and women’s rugby too,” said Larkins who sat down with Sarries director of rugby Stephen Hamilton earlier this week to discuss a way forward.
“From our perspective it makes it really difficult to have the guys out there scrummaging on an international cricket pitch so I’m not sure what we’ll do. But juniors we will definitely look to accommodate
“Short term we’re committed to helping them out as much as we can from August 14. We’ve given them rates for pre-season which is nothing they’ll be able to get across Abu Dhabi. They’ll come in for the seniors, women’s and juniors.
“We’ll do our best, everything we can so that they can continue to operate and provide rugby in the capital which I think is a good thing.
“But there’ll definitely, 100 per cent, be no full-contact rugby games on the cricket ovals.”
Sarries held last Wednesday’s pre-season training sessions at the Al Forsan International Sports Resort in Khalifa City A but that doesn’t appear to be a long-term option, while cross-city rivals Abu Dhabi Harlequins are already contemplating their future at Zayed Sports City, with pitch hire across the UAE continuing to rocket.
Costs at ZSC exceeded Dh700,000 for Quins last season and Larkins explained that is one of the major reasons why developing Sheikh Zayed Stadium is being undertaken.
“What we’re trying to do is give people access to sport and facilities at a more cost-effective rate as is other than traditional,” said the New Zealander.
“We’re also try to extend the life of the pitch so more people get to use it. We will be using the cricket ovals to run different multiple sports, as many sports as we can.
“We’ve got three cricket ovals, the two nursery ovals outside which will have full lighting from September 1 so we can get night-time cricket. We won’t be playing senior rugby or football on those or on the stadium ground. They will be accessible to social sport as long as footwear is appropriate.”
Larkins revealed that when work on the two football pitches are complete – around the end of September or beginning of October – they would be open to discussions with the city’s rugby clubs.
“Potentially this will allow us to look at someone like Saracens or Quins coming in to utilise the pitch at times,” added Larkins.
“A lot will depend on wear and tear. It’s an Abu Dhabi Sports Council initiative so its community based. What we want to do is give as many people as much access as possible to the facilities.
“We’re a little bit uncertain at the moment how long it will take the pitch to recuperate after, say 30 guys have been on it playing rugby.
“Let’s wait and see. We’ll have a few football games in October just to see how the pitch comes up. Potentially we’ll have a social sevens game around that time too. If it’s ok and we’re able to manage some more games on it, then we will.
“What we won’t do is sacrifice one pitch that will potentially have 2-300 people on it a week for three-four hours a night just so the boys can play rugby. There’s a big difference between that and social and kids activity.”
He suggested that more pitches could even be built specifically for rugby, adding: “I’m meeting with Steve in the hope of possibly building two or three more pitches that could be specific to rugby. They’d obviously need some assistance to rent that out.
“They had a pretty killer deal up at Al Ghazal based on bar takings. That’s not something we’d be interested in.”
Ahead of Saturday’s Super Rugby final at Ellis Park, Sport360’s Alex Broun takes a look back at five of the best finals down through the years.
Which is your favourite?
Super Rugby’s inaugural final and one that will always be remembered for the late-great Jonah Lomu and the Blues hammering the Sharks to clinch the title.
One of five try scorers for the Blues at Eden Park, with Andrew Blowers getting a double, the Auckland franchise and Lomu in particular were outstanding against Gary Teichmann’s Sharks.
The Sharks remain Super Rugby’s unluckiest side, appearing in four finals (1996, 2001, 2007, 2012) without ever taking home the trophy.
Known as the “Foggy Final” or even “Gorillas in the Mist” it remains one of Super Rugby’s most controversial ever matches.
With thick fog shrouding Jade Stadium in Christchurch, making conditions virtually unplayable, the decision was made to go ahead.
Both teams tried to make the best of difficult circumstances with the Crusaders prevailing, thanks mainly to the boot of All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter.
“I don’t know what the crowd saw because it was tough out here,” said Crusaders captain Richie McCaw.
“We tried to keep it simple. We knew we had to keep it tighter. There were a few mistakes with the slippery ball.”
The first all South African final and one the Sharks will always regret losing.
With time almost up and the Bulls trailing 19-13 Francois Steyn’s missed touch kick proved to be costly.
The Bulls built up pressure in the Sharks’ 22, and the ball was then flung wide to winger Bryan Habana who slipped a tackle before applying the afterburners on a weaving run to score by the posts – Derick Hougaard’s simple conversion clinching the most dramatic of wins.
From here, the Bulls went on to win two more titles in three years.
The star-studded Crusaders were heavily favoured to win, but someone forgot to tell Queensland scrumhalf Will Genia.
With the Crusaders leading at half-time in Brisbane, after a Dan Carter try, the Reds fought back to 13-13, then Genia came up with the score of his life — a mazy, breathtaking run from inside his own half that turned out to be the match-winning try.
In front of a packed-out Suncorp Stadium this was Queensland’s finest hour.
In one of the most thrilling Super Rugby finals a 79th minute penalty goal to Bernard “The Iceman” Foley saw the Tahs sneak home.
The match, played in front of then record crowd of 61,238, see-sawed through the 80 minutes with Adam Ashley-Cooper crossing for a double for NSW and Matt Todd and Nemani Nadolo scoring for the visitors.
With the Crusaders leading by two points in the final minutes Richie McCaw was penalized and Foley did the rest.
The Waratahs won their first Super Rugby title in 19 attempts after two lost finals.
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.