Harlequins and Saracens could groundshare at Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Stadium

Matt Jones 14/08/2017
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Quins v Saracens in previous action against each other

Abu Dhabi neighbours Harlequins and Saracens could become even closer this season with the possibility of a groundshare at the city’s national cricket stadium suggested.

Abu Dhabi Cricket (ADC) acting CEO Matt Boucher has floated the idea with both sides facing issues with their current pitches.

The future of Sarries’ home games next season was thrown into jeopardy when Al Ghazal Golf Club was closed at the beginning of the month. Quins, meanwhile, are also thought to be weighing up the idea of switching homes due to rising costs at Zayed Sports City – with pitch hire costs exceeding Dh700,000 last season.

Sheikh Zayed Stadium – which hosts UAE and Pakistan international cricket – was handed over to the Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC) in March and Boucher admits the organisation is open to the idea of hosting both Sarries and Quins matches in the future

“We’re fully supportive of Harlequins and Saracens and the brilliant job they’ve done for rugby in Abu Dhabi so if they wanted to come to us or if there’s an opportunity to come then we’d be open to discussions,” said Boucher of a facility that aims to become more all-encompassing for sport in the capital.

As part of the redevelopment of the Khalifa City-based stadium, two FIFA standard football pitches are being built on land outside the stadium, which will be used as training pitches for teams attending December’s FIFA Club World Cup – including Spanish giants Real Madrid.

“At the moment we’re thinking of them as just football pitches, not rugby-based solutions for Harlequins and Saracens, but of course we’re in contact with them.

“We know from the media reports and talking to them they have availability. We will continue to talk to them and we have done a deal with Sarries for them to train on the premier ovals throughout the summer.

“We don’t have plans as yet for a third or fourth pitch or a designated rugby pitch at the moment but I don’t think that’s too far away. Once we start evaluating that cost and if we have some commitment to the costs from clubs to come to Abu Dhabi Cricket, then we can look at that.”

Sheikh Zayed Stadium has hosted the world's best cricket teams - including England

Sheikh Zayed Stadium has hosted the world’s best cricket teams – including England

Boucher admits both ADC and the ADSC have been in contact with the capital’s two clubs and although neither club are likely to start the season using the Sheikh Zayed Stadium facility as their own, that could quickly change, with the pitches likely to be ready by September or October.

He added: “Not yet. There are plans to build more facilities, not a rugby specific pitch and currently nothing is contractually signed for them to be here, but we’re keen to keep the door open for them, and any other clubs.

“We have some football clubs contractually signed for September and if we can build a commercial relationship with them for a year, two or three years then we’ll definitely present that to the board.

“I haven’t spoken to Quins personally but our team has. I don’t know whether they’ve signed up again to Zayed Sports City, there’s a long term relationship there. We haven’t signed any agreement but nothing’s off the table, let’s put it that way.”

The UAE will also host the 2019 Asian Cup and Boucher admits a multi-sport facility has long been in the pipeline, although he denied that the cricket stadium facility would act as direct competition to Abu Dhabi’s premier sports facility, Zayed Sports City.

“We’re great friends of Zayed Sports City,” added Boucher of Quins’ home for the last seven years.

“Our new headquarters are there so it’s not a competitive facility. They’ve done a great job with their pitches and they’re full. If there is going to be some overflow and we can fill that capacity then we’ll welcome the opportunity with open arms.

“One of the main sports council mandates is to get people fit and healthy and off their sofas and playing sport. You see this throughout a number of areas.

“We were handed the day to day management in March from the previous administration. They did a great job before but it was very cricket focused.

“Now we have two football pitches, floodlights going on the ovals. We’re looking at five-aside football, changing the academy, bringing in more nets.

“It might sound a bit like a press-release but we’re trying to create a world-class sporting hub for multi-sports and something that’s not overpriced. It’s a fantastic facility and as Khalifa City grows I think this will become more of a hotspot.”

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Doha start pre-season but Alex Natera doubts club will play in West Asia Premiership

Matt Jones 14/08/2017
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Alex Natera has been putting his Doha side through their early paces as pre-season got underway in Qatar last week – although he is preparing for life devoid of West Asia Premiership rugby next season.

The botcott of Qatar by the UAE and several other Gulf nations in June left Doha in a precarious situation, although they were given hope last month when Asia Rugby revealed it was looking at arranging Doha matches to be played on neutral territory in Muscat.

Natera, however, claims that possibility is looking ever more remote with the club concerned about the costs involved and loss of clubhouse revenue on matchdays.

“Our only hope of playing in the West Asia Premiership is if the blockades are lifted in the next few weeks and if the UAE Rugby Federation do have a back-up fixture list with Doha included in it,” said the Australian.

“I think it’s pretty fair to say, although we would like to, it’s highly unlikely we’ll be playing in the Premiership this season.

“This is still our ideal option and we have to prepare for that scenario just in case. But it’s unlikely we’ll play our games in Muscat as it sounds like we are expected to cover all expenses for both home and away fixtures for both teams – a ridiculous suggestion that actually says a lot on its own.”

Pre-season has, nevertheless, started in earnest, with Natera reiterating that Doha will play competitively this season – with the possibility they might even play in Sri Lanka.

“We have been busy with other options and we are optimistic that we will be able to play in another league overseas this season,” he added.

“We are excited about this prospect and hopefully we’ll get some definitive answers with I’s dotted and T’s crossed before the month is out.

“I’ve told the lads we will be playing rugby this season and we need to approach these early days as if we will be in the WAP and kicking off in mid-September.

“We started pre-season last week. There are still lots of players away still but we’ve averaged about 30 players for all three sessions.”

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Louie Tonkin effect has given Bahrain belief that they can become one of Gulf rugby's giants

Matt Jones 13/08/2017
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Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin.

The Louie Tonkin effect on Bahrain has created a huge buzz around the club, with the man himself believing people are daring to dream anything is possible.

For so long a meandering club living in the shadow of more illustrious neighbours Doha in the Gulf’s western region, the Welshman set about a transformation when he arrived 12 months ago that started to come to fruition by the end of the 2016/17 season.

Bahrain finished third in the West Asia Premiership, winning seven of their 12 games, and gave Abu Dhabi Harlequins a stern test in the final of the West Asia Cup before succumbing to a 31-25 defeat.

Although they failed to lift any silverware, Tonkin insists their season has instilled hope in his players and everyone connected to the club.

“I’ve never seen a more excited group of players,” Tonkin said about the early weeks of pre-season.

“We did well last year and I think it’s given perhaps the guys who’ve been here a long time and not had much success, it’s given them a sniff of what can be achieved if they work hard.

“They’re working their a**** off in the gym right now, some who perhaps haven’t been in the gym before. It’s brought a really good edge to the squad and everybody’s working hard. There’s a real buzz about starting the league.”

Bahrain start their 2017/18 campaign with an eye-catching West Asia Cup final rematch with Mike McFarlane’s all-conquering Quins on September 29 in the West Asia Premiership, and Tonkin revealed his players are working extremely hard during the arduous summer months.

“We still have guys away as is the case here but (the ones who are here) have been in the gym the last month and making good gains,” said the former Cardiff University head coach.

“We’re back into training now with 75 per cent of the squad. The rest will come back in the next few weeks. With the weather it’s obviously difficult to get volume in but we are making headway and it’s great.

“The majority of the squad is the same, but we will be making slight changes to the way we play. It’s a case of recapping and building into six weeks with our new exposure in the (Western Clubs) Champions League which we’re really excited about.”

Tonkin was pretty much a one-man army on the coaching side last season, which makes the club’s progress even more remarkable, but he has made steps to make life a little easier, and the club set-up more professional for the coming season.

“I was a one man team last year in terms of management,” he added.

“This year we wanted to increase that and make it more professional. I am still director of rugby but we’ve brought in Adam Wallace, team captain last year, on an official basis. He will now become player-coach and will look after the backs and attack.

“We’ve also brought in club legend Tom Hanratty. He’s played for the club for years, doesn’t play too much anymore but has been involved with the Arabian Celts, a gaelic football team, over the past few seasons.

“We’re really lucky to get him on board and building a strong management group with him.”

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