Craig Nutt expects both Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain to be among the teams challenging for honours this season after the two played out an enthralling Western Clubs Champions League opener on Friday.
The curtain for both Asia Rugby’s cross border pre-season tournament and the UAE rugby season was raised in breathtaking style with both sides sharing 10 tries at Zayed Sports City.
Quins were 15-0 down inside 20 minutes, then scored 31 unanswered points to take control of the game, before Bahrain barged back into the contest with three tries inside the final minutes as Quins scraped home 36-32.
The fast-paced and physical nature of a game meant to act as a pre-season runout is an indication both teams will be among the leading clubs in 2017/18, according to Quins prop Nutt.
“I’d like to think (the closeness of the result and performance of both sides) shows these two teams will be up there challenging for titles this season,” said Welshman Nutt, signed from cross-city rivals Saracens in the summer.
“We were expecting Bahrain to be good and they were dogged. I know Louie (Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin) from back home and I knew he would have them organised, he’s a good coach.
“Obviously (Dubai) Exiles have recruited well this summer and (Jebel Ali ) Dragons are no mugs. If you don’t turn up and play well in this league you’re going to lose, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against.
“There’s even some teams in the Conference that, if you don’t play well against you’ll lose to, so that says how much rugby has progressed in the three years I’ve been here. It’s progressed every year so you have to have a recruitment policy or you are going to fall behind.”
Nutt is enjoying life with the city’s oldest club and is relishing getting back to fighting for titles after two seasons of struggle at Al Ghazal. Sarries enjoyed a phenomenal 2014/15 – Nutt’s debut season in the Emirates – as they beat Doha to lift the West Asia Championship.
But they could not repeat the success as Exiles dominated 2015/16, while they really struggled last season – finishing bottom of both the West Asia Premiership and UAE Premiership.
Nutt said Sarries will always be a special place for him but he’s comfortable in his new surroundings.
“The set-up is more like what I’m used to back home. Everyone’s training and if you’re not, you’re not going to play,” said Nutt, who also hopes to force his way into Apollo Perelini’s UAE plans at the end of the season.
“It’s more professional. And that’s not taking anything away from Sarries. It’s a young club and I wish them all the best, there’s no hard feelings from my end and I hope there’s none the other end.
“They were a big part of my life but everyone moves on and now I’m a part of this club, and I’m going to work hard here too.”
Louie Tonkin was honest in his assessment after seeing his side play their first competitive game of the new season – improved but still room for improvement.
Bahrain were scintillating for 40 minutes – going ahead 15-0 at Zayed Sports City, the home of the dominant force in Gulf rugby, while rallying with three tries in the final 10 minutes to give Mike McFarlane’s men a scare as they edged a 36-32 victory.
The worrying problem was in the middle 40 minutes of the game they conceded 31 unanswered points to the resurgent and rampant hosts.
In truth the margin of defeat slightly flattered the visitors and Welshman Tonkin admitted the four-point gap is indicative of where the two sides are.
“It’s a reality check I think because everyone’s raving about how good we’re going to be this year, apart from us,” said the 34-year-old.
“And we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to improve mentally and fix mistakes which costs us last year. We have to tighten up on our set-piece and basic skills. That’s the biggest thing.
“We’ve got a more talented squad this year without question, with the additions and everyone coming back from injury. We have just got to make sure we focus on things that build a rugby match.”
Quins grew into the game after falling behind, with their pack possessing much greater physicality than in previous seasons – the additions of props Murray Reason and Craig Nutt from city rivals Saracens has helped there.
They were still irrisistable at times going forward to, with scrum-half Andrew Semple, fly-half Luke Stevenson, returning winger Chris Marshall and full-back Tom Brown all prominent.
They’ve lost key players Brian Geraghty, Willie Umu and Patrick Jenkinson, but the performances of Joe Tisdale, Courtney Raymond and Harry Skelton will have impressed coach McFarlane. And Tonkin said Quins’ performance proves they’re ready for the new season.
“The game also shows how good they’ll be again. They were deserved winners,” he added.
“There were loads of new faces in their squad. You can see they’re a very different side. They’ve got a lot more physicality. Big carriers and playing a tighter game and obviously they merge that with width too.
“They dominated the set piece which shows they’ve also improved massively. They’re going to be a real force again.
“We’ve got them first game of the season at home in three weeks so that will be a real measure of where we are.
“We’ll both play full strength sides so it will be a more relative and accurate reading of how competitive we’re going to be this year against each other.”
Tonkin admitted there were plenty of positives for him to take out of the performance too, with new additions Iwan Phillips, Jonathan Kenny and David Evans impressing, while Number 8 Elliot Behan was brilliant after missing his entire debut season with injury.
“We’re got a lot of threats, we just need to get basics right,” said Tonkin.
“Iwan, Dai and Kenny did well, Dai had a try. Iwan made a couple of line breaks, Elliot Behan, our No 8 who’d been out for 18 months, had a brilliant game, making line breaks and dummies and they’ll help us make big strides.
“But the scrum was dominated for 50 minutes and we made some mistakes and went inside ourselves. We need to manage the game mentally.
“It was exactly the same in the West Asia Cup final. We were 12-0 up then one mistake and we imploded mentally so we have to work on our mental skills. There were some massive positives too, we were excellent for the first and last 20 minutes, some of our defensive stuff was superb.”
The UAE Under-17s rounded off the Asia Rugby U17 Sevens tournament with a morale-boosting win against Uzbekistan to finish ninth out of 10 teams in Chinese Taipei.
Apollo Perelini’s young all-Emirati team endured a difficult first day in Tainan, losing all three Pool A fixtures by a combined 114-14 margin. They lost their final group match 67-0 at the hands of Malaysia yesterday morning to put themselves in the 9th/10th placed play-off – but they at least ended on a high with a fine 21-7 defeat of the Uzbeks.
Saif Al Jnebibi, Nawaf Al Nuaimi and Nayef Al Nuaimi were the UAE’s tryscorers. Asia powerhouse Japan went on to lift the trophy with a comprehensive 43-0 triumph over Thailand.
It was an eye-opening experience for the UAE teenagers but one Perelini hopes they will gain confidence from.
“It gives them encouragement because they need more tournaments to build that understanding of rugby,” said the former dual code international.
“And when you get that win under your belt as a group of Emiratis it just builds more confidence in them. We look to build on this squad with future development and entering other tournaments.
“Keeping them will be the issue because national service will break this squad up next year.”