Kristian Stinson admits the majority of Dubai Exiles players “let themselves down” last season, but the club captain revealed everyone is hungry and determined to right the wrongs of a disastrous campaign.
After several years in the wilderness, the UAE’s oldest club rampaged to the UAE Premiership and West Asia Premiership double two years ago under the guidance of Jacques Benade.
But Exiles flopped in defence of both titles as they slumped to fifth and fourth-placed finishes in Asia and domestically respectively in 2016/17 – a malaise that would have been an even bigger disappointment as they celebrated their 50th anniversary.
But pre-season has been positive, with the acquisitions of Jaen Botes and Lehan Koekemoer, among others, from Abu Dhabi Saracens bolstering the ranks, while Munster’s former Heineken Cup-winning centre Denis Hurley has come on board as assistant coach.
And, with Stinson heading into his final season after a decade of playing in the UAE, the skipper is determined to go out on a high.
“We know we let ourselves down last year and really didn’t kick on from the success of the previous year,” said Northern Irishman Stinson, 32.
“There were perhaps a lot of boys who let themselves down last year but in many respects it’s going to be better for us in the long run as we don’t want another year like that again.
“Last year was such a damp squip for so many reasons and to be fair to the Quins, they were incredible. Even if we were at our best, we probably still wouldn’t have got close to them. They played some excellent rugby as did the other clubs.”
Stinson started his career in the Emirates with Exiles in 2007. He spent two years with Dubai Hurricanes between 2010-12 before returning to Exiles, having also earned four UAE caps along the way.
He and wife Emma welcomed daughter Ayla into the world this summer, the main reason why the veteran prop is deciding to call it a day at the end of the term – albeit in the hope the finale of the season is a happier one than the last.
“I’m still club captain and want to go out on a high,” added Stinson.
“I’ve started every game for the last two years that I’ve been available for and this year I’m having to fight every session to keep my head
In the frame, because competition is outstanding.
“There’s about 25 new boys in total for us but very few of us oldies left.”
Although Exiles’ summer recruitment drive has been largely fruitful, they have also said goodbye to some key players. Veteran winger/full-back Matt Richards has gone to Jebel Ali Dragons, scrum-half Ed Armitage has returned home to the UK, while captain Glenn Moore, who got married in his native Northern Ireland at the weekend, has retired, with winger Ed James forced to call it a day following a nasty injury suffered last season.
Hurley came into the club in May with Exiles beginning pre-season training at the beginning of June. A large squad of players has been training consistently since then, with the return to fitness of classy fly-half Durandt Gerber and flanker Danny Waddy – one of the few standouts from last season – meaning confidence is high within the camp.
“We have worked really hard for the last eight weeks and really put a lot of effort in,” added Stinson.
“We’re looking seriously competitive in terms of numbers and quality.
“The atmosphere is incredible at the moment, there’s so much positivity about the squad. A lot of bonding off the pitch has been paying dividends on it. We had 25 boys out paddle boarding (earlier this week) and have got a pre-season trip to Al Ain this weekend too.
“So now the focus is on doing the reps in training, building a full senior squad that shares the same core values and beliefs and wants to go out and challenge for the championships.
“With the players we’ve recruited so far and the coaching set up of Jacques and Denis and the facilities we have as a club, it now really comes down to us, the players, to decide what we want to achieve this season.
“And so far it’s all very positive, but we’re not taking anything for granted. We have to train hard, put in the reps and hope for a bit of luck along the way. Either way, it’s going to be a tough season. But we’re looking to be much more competitive than last year.”
Two of this season’s three Western Clubs Champions League matches will be hosted by Sri Lankan champions Kandy, with the full backing of Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain it has been revealed.
The Asia Rugby-organised tournament has acted as a curtain-raiser to the Gulf rugby season the past two years and will do so again, ahead of the 2017/18 campaign kick-off on September 22.
Sri Lankan champions Kandy will participate for a third straight year, with Mike McFarlane’s Quins back to defend the title they lifted 12 months ago. Louie Tonkin’s Bahrain will feature for the first time having finished runners-up to Quins in the West Asia Cup last term.
Quins and Bahrain kick the tournament off this Friday as the two teams clash at Zayed Sports City – with the other two games both being played in Sri Lanka as the tournament goes abroad for the first time.
“Kandy travelled the last two years and expressed a desire to host games this year, so to be fair to them and to share the costs they are not travelling, and both of the other clubs will travel,” said Ghaith Jalajel, Asia Rugby’s development consultant for the Gulf region.
“It’s also what the other clubs asked for last year. They wanted to travel away for team building purposes.”
This year’s tournament will be played over a longer period of three weeks to accommodate the travel being undertaken by Quins and Bahrain – who will play both games away.
Jalajel added: “All fixtures have now been confirmed. Abu Dhabi are hosting Bahrain on September 8, then the following weekend (September 15) Abu Dhabi are away to Kandy in Sri Lanka, then Sri Lanka host Bahrain on the 22nd, which is the opening weekend of the season here, but Bahrain have a bye.
“This will give each team two good warm-up games before the season starts.”
Mike McFarlane insists he is content with the make-up of his Abu Dhabi Harlequins squad – despite the loss of three key players over the course of the summer.
Centres Brian Geraghty and Willie Umu, as well as flanker Patrick Jenkinson, have all departed for pastures new during the off-season. Geraghty – arguably the standout player of Gulf rugby last season – has returned home to Ireland, while Umu and Jenkinson are pursuing rugby opportunities in New Zealand and Hong Kong respectively.
Although Quins won an unprecedented quintuple of trophies in 2016/17, McFarlane says that brings with it both positive and negative connotations.
“Unfortunately that’s the nature of this place. And success brings good publicity for them and further rugby opportunities,” said Quins’ head coach.
“We’re losing three quality players. Brian had the X factor, incredible pace and footballing skills. Willy brought power and the ability to bring others into the game while Jenks is an outstanding athlete and possesses a great rugby brain.
“All three will very much be missed but it’s great that Quins have had such a positive influence on their rugby careers and we hope they go on to achieve even more with their new clubs.”
Quins possess the largest senior playing in the UAE and have also brought in a number of top name players over the summer, including powerhouse prop Craig Nutt, as well as Garth van Niekirk, Sean Stevens, Matt Hutchings and Ross Byres from cross-city rivals Saracens.
Player comings and goings aside, McFarlane feels repeating the feat of last season will be nigh on impossible.
“Five trophies will be very hard to achieve again by any player or club,” he added.
“Despite the three departures, it’s certainly a chance for lads to step up and with the quality in depth we have. While we will miss them on and off the field, I am more than happy with where the current squad are.”