Dave Knight is hoping Dubai Hurricanes can fly under the radar and surprise a few people this season with a semblance of a solid structure on and off the field at the club for the first time in quite some time.
Canes swept to first place in the UAE Premiership three years ago, winning four of their five games. It earned them a place in the Premiership final but there, at their home ground of The Sevens, they met a resurgent Abu Dhabi Harlequins who dished out a 39-19 beating.
It was an unfortunate sign of things to come for Canes, whose season unraveled after that. It’s a tumble that continued for the next two seasons too as coaches Ross Mills and James Ham have come and gone.
But with UAE international Knight returning for his second season as skipper and PE teacher director of rugby Mike Wernham, who replaced Ham midway through last season, feeling he now has more control, a calm seems to have settled over the club.
And Knight feels a corner could be turned in 2017/18.
“I think everyone seems to write us off,” said the flanker when asked if Canes can surprise opponents this term.
“At the end of the day we’ve shown we can compete on our day. Maybe we’re not consistent enough and it’s about getting consistency into our game. That’s what the best teams have, it’s what Quins have, Bahrain have.
“We don’t have the same funds and recruitment style as them but what we do have is a good coaching set-up, good facilities and good boys. So we hope to kick on. I’m positive but realistic also.”
With the game in the UAE growing and developing at an exponential rate, it’s vital every off-season that despite needing down time, clubs and players don’t take their eye off the ball, otherwise they risk getting left behind.
Canes have perhaps been guilty of that in previous years, but not this summer. Before taking to the training pitches at the start of August Wernham had cut his own summer holidays short to get cracking on a blueprint for the season ahead, with players starting gym sessions in early July in a bid to get a head-start on their opposition.
“Teams coming back earlier and earlier these days for pre-season and it’s getting more important,” added Knight.
“We started strength and conditioning in July and I thought that was early, but then Quins came back in June and Exiles too, so it is getting more and more to that level. There may be no break between games in a few years. But everyone’s been working hard.
“I think it’s just a bit more structured now (under Mike). It’s exciting. Things have been building since July so I’m just ready for it to start.”
After replacing UAE teammate Daniel Perry a year ago, the understated Knight is hoping to for more success in his second campaign as captain.
“We had a leadership meeting at the end of the season and everyone was like ‘yeah, we want Knighty to do it again’, so it was an easy decision for me to make,” added Knight.
“I don’t think we achieved what I wanted to last year. Bringing in Mike kind of steadied the ship and at the end of the season we started to get closer to the results we want. So now, hopefully, with a full pre-season under us we can kick on.”
Last season was always going to be a learning curve for Wernham. But with a solid pre-season complete and an opening day 28-13 victory over Abu Dhabi Saracens last weekend, he is looking forward to a full season with the club under his command.
He said: “This season in comparison to last we started with two losses. I personally thought we weren’t prepared as what we should have been from pre-season. This summer I cut short my summer holiday to make sure that wasn’t going to happen.
“There’s been some more firm words this summer and it may be the PE teacher inside of me, but the expectations and standards of a Canes player is clear, and the lads know what is acceptable and what’s not.
“When you come into a job halfway through, you’re already dealing with a full season of what’s been done in the past. Mindsets are hard to change.
“Last season I saw strengths and weaknesses but I didn’t want to change the world. We know we can be a good side. We’ve got new players, they’ve trained hard and I think we’re in a good place.”
For a team that play in dazzling orange it’s fitting that the future once again looks bright for Arabian Knights – who have announced Henry Paul is set to take charge of their mini and youth section.
Former dual code international Paul remains director of rugby at Jebel Ali Dragons and his involvement with Knights is confined to their thriving junior section, where he takes on the role of mini and youth skills director.
The section has become so popular that the club has been forced to advise parents in some oversubscribed age groups to take their children to other clubs in Dubai.
It’s a far cry from the beginning of the summer when the future looked bleak for a lot of rugby clubs in the UAE – none more so than Knights.
Knights, along with Dubai Sharks, were told to search for a new home in July when they were informed access to their long-time home of Dubai Sports City would be heavily restricted in 2017/18 with the emergence of the DSC-based Dubai Eagles.
Now, in addition to the deal struck with Paul, Knights have also found a new realm to roam at Kings School Al Barsha in Umm Suqeim.
One of the most popular clubs in the Emirates, Knights are also probably the most instantly recognisable due to their bright orange playing strips.
And despite all the turbulence surrounding rugby in the country over the last few months, Knights are proving that the UAE rugby community is fighting fit.
“We are excited to announce that after much discussion ex-England 15s and sevens international and New Zealand league player Henry Paul will be joining us as part of the mini and youth of the Arabian Knights,” said club chairwoman Louise Palmer.
“I have known HP for a number of years, since he played for the CNCF Legends team as part of the International Vets tournament in the Dubai Sevens.
“We think it is great to have someone with the same beliefs and ethos joining us as part of our club. Our mini and youth is a strong section of our community and with the skills that Henry brings, he can only help us go from strength to strength.
“Initially he will be coaching the U19 squad and implementing an Arabian Knights skills sessions programme as part of our mini and youth after school schedule which will be available to Kings Al Barsha students and Arabian Knights mini and youth members, and all based at easily accessible Kings Barsha School on Umm Suqeim Road.
“Henry has a number of responsibilities in the rugby community of the UAE and we are glad to have him join the club to help us to continue developing rugby here in the UAE.”
Knights were founded by Louise’s late husband, Neil, in 2008 and despite not having a team in the top tier West Asia or UAE Premiership, the boast boast the second highest number of players in the UAE next to Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
Statistics released by the UAE Rugby Federation earlier this summer revealed Knights had 574 registered players last season compared to Quins’ 775 – although the Knights website says the club is more than 600 strong.
With Paul on board and a venue secured for senior and junior teams to play their home games, Knights will hope to continue moving forward.
“After we were advised by Dubai Sports City Rugby Park management that we would no longer be able to have any midweek pitch hire and our weekend pitch hires were put under a cloud of uncertainty we had to take a path that provided more stability for our members and further growth potential for the club,” added Palmer.
“We were saddened by this change in the relationship with Dubai Sports City. Fortunately for the Arabian Knights, Kings Al Barsha provided an opportunity to move to a facility with a newly expanded grass pitch within their grounds, fantastic location and a management team that are working closely with us and the UAE RF to provide an environment suitable for sanctioned matches in Dubai.
“After a summer of uncertainty the Arabian Knights have started the season in a very positive mode with our seniors and now mini and youth able to get out and train and get back to doing what we enjoy. As we say #GetyourOrangeon #NP15.”
Sean Carey has a curt response to rival clubs who question Dubai Eagles’ rapid ascent to UAE club rugby’s top table – get used to us because we’re not going anywhere.
Eagles’ introduction to life among the elite was a turbulent one on Friday night as they crashed to an 85-8 defeat on the West Asia Premiership’s opening night against Dubai Exiles – Carey’s former side.
They showed brief glimpses of togetherness and talent, and Ross Bailey notching the new club’s first-ever try minutes from the end proved Eagles have plenty of fight in them.
They are going to need it, with a long season surely ahead. But despite suffering a defeat that looks ominous, Carey insists it’s a solid foundation for a club that definitely has a future.
“We’re not going anywhere, we’re going to learn. We’re only going to grow from here. This is the start,” said a defiant Irishman.
“From six weeks ago and seven people at our first training we’ve now got a full team, a women’s team and kids too, so that’s all been good for us. It’s all going to take off, it just takes time, but we’re in it for the long run. People better get used to seeing more of Eagles.”
Carey’s courage is admirable and not without merit. Everyone has to build up from the bottom and on Friday there were encouraging signs Eagles can get off the ground and eventually soar.
From fly-half and director of rugby Carey and half-back partner Josh Ives being loud and vocal, clearly possessing keen rugby brains with which to guide the fledgling Eagles on the field.
To injured captain Conor Coakley, animatedly pounded every inch of the touchline as he coaxed and encouraged his teammates. Head coach Pat Benson and what looked like a dedicated team of assistants, meanwhile, gestured and offered advice and praise.
These few core individuals care a great deal about the new venture. And that bodes well for a sustainable future.
“We’re here for the long run. It will come,” said Carey, keeping the faith.
“We were putting in the hits and making the tackles, it’s just the set-piece was the big difference. There’s no way you can win a game if you’re losing every single scrum or lineout, and that doesn’t come down to pride, it’s organisation.
“I think the pride showed when we came back at the end and scored, but it will come. We’re six weeks old, some guys don’t know each other that well yet or even second names of their team-mates, so it’ll come.
“The scoreline was a disappointment but we’re not looking at it. We know where we’re at. Simple things we’ll get right and that will mean 30 points off the scoreboard next time. We’ve got Sarries (Abu Dhabi Saracens) now and we’re looking forward to that. Regroup and go again.”
Opposing chairman Mike Wolff has been quite critical of Eagles’ aided flight up the UAE rugby ranks this summer. Exiles director of rugby Jacques Benade also wonders whether starting a few rungs down would have been more beneficial for Eagles, although he is also happy to see a new club emerging while others struggle.
“It will be tough for them. It’s all new to them and they will have to grow. This is a good level of rugby and a lot of their players will have to get used to it,” said Benade, heading into his third season at the Exiles helm.
“But I saw signs from them. The first 20 minutes they controlled it well with Josh at nine and Sean at 10, and they had a few forwards coming off the ball. There were not a lot of options after that but it’s something they can definitely build on.
“They have the heart, you could see the guys worked their balls off, they wanted to defend, they wanted to play.”
Although he admires their gusto and is happy his players and those with UAE aspirations have two more competitive fixtures than they might have otherwise faced, with Doha dropping out of the Gulf picture, Benade predicts things getting worse before they get better.
“Should they maybe be in the Conference one year to grow and build? I don’t know,” added the South African.
“Not just because what other people are saying, but for them. I think it’s important to go and step up every week, whereas here it’s only going to get harder and harder.
“Against (Jebel Ali) Dragons, (Abu Dhabi) Quins, it’s going to be really hard on them, and I think they’ll have to get something from the games because it’s going to be hard to keep the boys positive, if every weekend they’re getting 50 or 60 points put on them.
“Maybe if they’re in the Conference they get some wins together, play some good rugby, there’s a buzz about the club.
“It’s very hard because we want more fixtures and we’re happy because, with Eagles here, we play more games and with Doha out this year it would have been really sad if there were reduced games.
“Al Ain too, it’s always a good game there and for UAE rugby to grow you need more competitive fixtures, to play week in week out. I think you saw that with the UAE (in the Asia Rugby Championship) this year, other teams just looked fitter.”