Abu Dhabi Harlequins will retain their Western Clubs Champions League trophy with victory against Kandy on Friday – but Mike McFarlane has described the game as simply “another stepping stone” towards the Gulf rugby season kick-off next week.
Quins won a thrilling contest 36-32 against Bahrain last Friday in the curtain-raiser for the Asia Rugby-organised tournament, but both teams must now travel to Sri Lanka as it is held in multiple countries for the first time.
Although McFarlane has bigger priorities, he is of course keen to retain a trophy that kick-started their unprecedented haul of silverware in 2016/17.
“It’s another stepping stone in our preparations for the season starting next week,” he said.
“However, the incentive of retaining the trophy is there, I’m not going to deny that. That aside, it’s another opportunity for players within a large squad to stake a claim for a starting jersey by performing well against a high quality outfit.
“We know they are dangerous with some large forwards and a back line that’s electric on the sevens circuit so no doubt they will look to play expansive rugby.
“All I can ask of the players is that we step up, put into practice the focuses we have looked at this week and then reflect on whether we have been clinical enough in achieving our targets.”
Kandy have featured in all three editions of the tournament so far, since they first entered along with Abu Dhabi Saracens, Doha and Kazakhstan’s Olymp in 2015.
Sean Wijesinghe’s side are heavily depleted by a raft of players away with the Sri Lanka national team busy preparing for the second leg of the Asia Sevens Series in South Korea next weekend, but he insists it’s a great chance for his youngsters to make their mark.
“We will not be playing 11 of our senior players due to the ongoing Asian Sevens Series, as well as a few players recovering from injuries,” Wijesinghe revealed.
“But it will be a great opportunity for the young boys to show their talents on a big stage. That will give the young boys a great opportunity to play some tough opponents. There’ll be six debutants, five of whom are school leavers who only finished their A Levels last week.
“We’ve had three weeks of training as our season is still eight weeks away.
“We played Quins last year and they are a very good side. I was told this year’s team is even better so we know what is in front of us, but I’m pretty sure our boys will adapt.”
Kandy have travelled to the UAE for both previous editions of the tournament and Wijesinghe said it is special for them to be able to bring the tournament to Sri Lanka.
“It is a great opportunity for Kandy Sports Club to host this tournament for the first time in Sri Lanka and we are really looking forward to it,” he said.
“We are grateful to be in this tournament for the third consecutive year. The first year we came runners-up and last year we didn’t do well, losing both games. But this year is so special for us as both games will be on our home pitch.”
For Quins fans not travelling with the team, the game will be streamed live on thepapare.com
The problems keep mounting for Abu Dhabi Saracens who are set to start the new season without a home and a head coach after Winston Cowie announced he has stepped down.
The New Zealander cited work and family commitments as the reason for relinquishing the role he only took up last summer.
A group of senior players are shouldering the burden in the wake of Cowie’s deicision – including director of rugby Stephen Hamilton, flanker Jonny Taylor, lock Phanta Quinsile and club captain Andy Baker.
It’s been a tough summer for Sarries – the UAE’s second youngest club after newly-formed Dubai Eagles having been established only in 2011 – having been ravaged of star players including former skipper and UAE behemoth Jaen Botes, who left for Dubai Exiles, while Craig Nutt, Murray Reason, Sean Stevens and Garth van Niekerk all defected to rivals Harlequins.
On top of that they were dealt a further blow at the beginning of August when Al Ghazal Golf Club was suddenly shut – leaving them, for now, without a home field for the 2017/18 season.
Chairman Jay Danielson has been stuck in the Emirates during the summer following passport issues surrounding the birth of his second child – although it’s probably a good job with plenty for him to do at the club too.
“Winnie has a lot of family and work commitments and he said managing those would not compatible with the level of effort required to be a full-time coach too,” said the Australian, who remains upbeat.
“Over last few months Winnie and I have had several chats. Coaching is not something you can half do and he was very honest about saying he didn’t want to do something half-a***d. We were very open and honest with each other and he will remain a loyal supporter of the club.”
The senior playing group will lead the team into the new West Asia and UAE Premiership seasons, set to begin with a trip to The Sevens to take on Dubai Hurricanes on September 22.
Pete Henderson, meanwhile, is in charge of the second team who will play in the third-tier Community League and open up against reigning champions Jebel Ali Dragons 3rds on the same day.
Hamilton and the now departed Nutt previously took on player-coach roles in 2015/16 following Ali Thompson’s departure but Danielson insists he wants a full-time coach in place before the end of the year.
“Coaches are not growing on trees here in the UAE, so I’m chatting to some people both locally and abroad,” he said.
“It’s certainly my aim to put in a coach as opposed to a player coach, although players are filling in the void among the senior playing group, and they are doing a good job of it too.”
Despite the upheaval and the fact he always seems to be putting out a fire, Danielson insists confidence is high going into the new campaign.
“We’re still positive, numbers are good at training, which is excellent,” added Danielson.
“There’s been a lot of players moving on, moving home, moving to Dubai, so it’s encouraging to see so many new faces.
“I was told there were 30 people at training on Monday and there haven’t really been those sorts of numbers on a Monday night at Saracens training in the last few years I’ve been there.
“We have the second team playing in the Community League team and some old boys have come out of the woodwork too, so we definitely have two full teams.
“We have a lot of international flair too, with a few new French guys showing up, we’ve got two Italians, which is great to see.
“There’s been a big recruitment drive and the guys have done a really good job. I think we lost seven front rowers – no other club even has seven front rowers.
“It’s been a challenge but the boys have stepped up. It will be a challenging season we know but we have Canes on September 22, Jebel Ali for the twos and we’ll have a few bus loads going down to Dubai for both games so we can’t wait.”
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.”