The mettle of quintuple champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins is certainly being tested in the early stages of the season as they head to Bahrain Friday.
Mike McFarlane’s side got their West Asia Premiership title defence off to a thrilling start last week as they earned a last-gasp 34-33 victory at Jebel Ali Dragons on opening night – Luke Stevenson’s touchline conversion beyond the 80th minute sealing an epic triumph.
And the champions are certainly not being allowed to parade easily into the early part of the 2017/18 campaign, with a second tough fixture in a week with a trip west to take on Louie Tonkin’s men in red.
But McFarlane says his side are relishing another big game, and he is expecting a huge battle.
“We have a squad travelling to do a job and will go toe to toe with them in search of another win on the road,” said the Quins coach.
“The players relish being tested and the capacity both physically and mentally is incredible. I’m sure the game will bring leaders to the fore in what will be a battle.”
Quins retained one of the five trophies they hoisted last term without even playing last week when Bahrain did them a favour and beat Kandy 24-23 in Sri Lanka – a result which ensured Quins held onto their Western Clubs Champions League title.
And McFarlane had plenty of praise for Tonkin and his charges – who pushed Quins close in almost all their encounters last season, while a 36-32 win was required to open their Champions League defence at the start of the month.
“We go to Bahrain in a game last year which on reflection was probably our toughest,” added McFarlane.
“They’ve got an excellent coach and always prep well. It’s big game after big game at the moment. It’s a hard way to start the Premiership but to get a win away under our belts against such a strong Dragons team is excellent.”
Defeats of 17-15 and 31-25 were evidence of the thin gap that exists between the two sides last year – the only anomaly a 45-17 thrashing in the closing stages of the Premiership campaign as Tonkin rested players heading into the West Asia Cup final.
He hasn’t had much luck against McFarlane but Tonkin admits he relishes competing against him and Quins.
“We really enjoy playing them,” said the Welshman.
“They’re always good contests and they’re good guys, coached incredibly well and it’s good for us to measure ourselves against the best in the league early on.
“We know how good a side they are and they’ll come here deservedly as favourites, but we’ll just try and get our own performance right.
“Everyone’s excited about the first league game. We’ve had a good Champions League campaign and three games altogether so we’re happy about that. We’re hoping to improve on those performances.
“If we make as many errors against them as we did three weeks ago, they’ll beat us, so we have to be much better. We need to do the basics well.”
Bahrain skipper Adam Wallace misses the game and could be out for two months after injuring himself against Kandy.
“We’ve picked up some significant injuries, captain Adam Wallace has damaged his MCL so could be out for eight weeks,” added Tonkin.
“It’s a huge loss for us and him but gives him a chance to focus on his coaching. But we also have a better squad to cater for the injuries.”
They opened the season with a feast of tries in a trouncing of new boys Dubai Eagles, yet Kristian Stinson knows Dubai Hurricanes will pose a very different threat.
The 2015/16 double winners started the new season in scintillating fashion, thrashing Eagles 85-8. Jacques Benade’s men looked back to something approaching their best after a lackluster 2016/17 campaign – flawless in the set-piece, inventive in the back line and flexing their intimidating muscle in the pack.
But Exiles stalwart Stinson is expecting a more thorough examination of their title credentials tonight.
“It will definitely be a much sterner test to last week, the Hurricanes will be a lot better organised and structured than the Eagles,” said the Northern Irish peop – a former Hurricane.
“However, until we play a few more games, everyone is really an unknown quantity at this stage, especially given the amount of recruitment that has gone on behind the scenes.
“We’re expecting the Canes to be well drilled, fit and to come at us hard. They have the edge on us after last season’s games and it’s always a ferocious local derby, especially given the toing and frowing of the past few seasons.
“Whilst our boys played very well last week and dominated every facet of the game, this will be a very different test and we will need to be at our combative and clinical best to get the result we are after.
“The boys are hungry to be involved in the team, the competition for places is causing a lot of ferocity at training and I expect us to take that on to the pitch. It should be a belter.”
Exiles suffered a 19-17 defeat in their first encounter with Canes last season. And although they recovered to win the second West Asia Premiership meeting 33-12 in February – Canes beat Exiles to claim the West Asia Trophy.
Canes and Exiles is a big Dubai derby and Mike Wernham’s men head into the game on the back of their own win on opening night – a 28-13 victory against Abu Dhabi Saracens.
And Canes director of rugby Wernham says there’s been a lot of excitement in training this week ahead of what should be a titanic tussle.
“It’s a huge game,” he said.
“With the recruitment Exiles have put together and the squad they have, we’re very complimentary of them, but we know on our day, just like we did last season, we can turn sides like these over.
“We had a pleasing start to the season but we analysed after the game that we wasted some opportunities and that left the lads annoyed. We’ve trained this week with that in mind and we’re playing Exiles.
“We’re incredibly excited about the prospect. It’s an unbelievable opportunity and hopefully we can carry on and drag the result out that we want. They trained really well this week and the whole camp is excited for the game. A lot of lads have put their hands up.
“So much competition means some players will miss out as Daniel Perry and Andrew Powell, our UAE boys, are back in the squad. Competition is fierce and you could see that at training.”
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.”