Two teams who will consider themselves among the favourites for the UAE Conference title glory this season clash in the capital on Friday as Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds welcome Dubai Exiles 2nds to Zayed Sports City.
Quins won an epic Conference Top 6 final in April – requiring extra time to beat Al Ain Amblers thanks to a sudden death Kent Watene try – so will be the team everyone is looking to beat this term.
After a promising first half of the season, Exiles fell away in the Top 6, missing out on the final as resurgent Amblers came from almost nowhere, and coach Gareth Venter believes it will be just as ferociously contested in 2017/18.
“I think that the Conference this year is going to be really competitive – there are some really good teams that have top players in all positions,” said the South African.
“We’ve had a good start with a decent pre-season with consistent numbers. The second half against the Knights showed the rugby we want to play. Last week we got stuck in a very physical meeting against the Tigers in what were humid and wet conditions that didn’t allow us to play our patterns.”
Exiles opened the campaign with a convincing 46-7 defeat of Arabian Knights but were edged out 8-7 by Heartbeat Tigers a week ago. And Venter is looking forward to the challenge ahead in Abu Dhabi.
“Quins this week away will be demanding – they are a very good team and will always be challenging for silverware come end of season,” he said.
“We have trained well this week and we are positive we will be able to play the rugby we want. As always we look forward to the challenge and will take it one match at a time.”
Amblers’ director of rugby Rocco De Bruyn is in temporary charge of the team for Friday’s trip to Tigers with head coach Sean Emmett back home in Australia, and he will be looking for more of the same from his side after a spirited 41-29 loss at home to Dubai Hurricanes 2nds last week.
“Although we picked up a couple of injuries in our first game, we still have a competent team that will travel to take on Tigers,” said the South African.
“We are well aware that we are in for another bone crunching outing and that Tigers can never be underestimated. Our first league game vs Canes was hard and we did not perform as well as we wished, but the lads are fostering a very positive attitude and we hope that this will pay off soon.”
Sharjah Wanderers, champions two seasons ago, are back in action after a week’s break and host Dubai Sharks, who have lost both of their games so far.
“We had a great start against Canes two weeks ago, who have stolen the win off us the past two times we faced them,” said chairman Shane Breen.
“It was far from what we’re capable of but it was our first game so there were a lot of positives to take away.
“We had a week off last week so our focus has been on addressing areas of our game that were poor in the Canes game.
“We welcome sharks to Sharjah for our first home game which we’re excited about. Sharks have become a competitive side over the past few years and will be massively disappointed with their result last weekend.
“However, we’re not focusing on anything other than our own systems and performance.”
Over in the Community League, meanwhile, RAK Rugby head to Beaver Nomads after a confidence-boosting opening day win over Abu Dhabi Harlequins 4ths – although the hosts will be hopeful after blowing away Knights 2nds 95-0 on the opening weekend.
It’s been a summer of positive change for the northern outfit, who finally settled on a new name and have also got a new grass pitch as well as a head coach in former Dubai Hurricanes prop and UAE international Craig Chapman.
“RAK are really looking forward to playing the Nomads, as it will be a real test of the work and changes put in over the last few weeks since Craig Chapman became our director of rugby,” said chairman Simon Williams.
“There’s been a massive change to attitude, commitment and discipline under his direction, as well as moving to playing on grass.
“This has led to a number of new players joining, the majority of which have slotted into this weekend’s 22-man squad. You can see the guys working hard to earn a place in the team, it’s genuinely exciting.
“I’m particularly pleased to see the collaboration we have done with Fujairah’s East Coast Bulls pay off with Jaco Diedericks playing his first game for RAK and making it into the first team.
“Nomads are a tough, quality side and the drills and plays we have worked on will be tested to the limit. We do, however, have a strong side and learnt a lot on areas we need to work on following the bonus point win over Abu Dhabi Harlequins last weekend.
“It was the first time the club has ever won on opening game but really we should have doubled that score.”
Amblers 2nds, meanwhile, have seen several of their senior players called up to the first team Conference squad, but De Bruyn is still confident of putting out a competitive side at home to Abu Dhabi Saracens 2nds.
“Luckily we still have enough numbers to take on Saracens,” he said.
“The boys are looking forward to the game, they have been committed to training sessions like we have not seen the last couple of years. This will be a home game due to Al Ghazal’s closure.”
Elsewhere this weekend, the UAE head to Jordan this weekend to take part in the third annual Arab Rugby 7s Championship. The championship will be held at Petra University and features eight Arab nations for the first time – with the UAE competing alongside hosts Jordan, as well as Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Lebanon and Palestine.
Head coach Apollo Perelini has picked a 12-man squad for the tournament, including Hamad Al Shkeli, Mohamed Al Shamsi, Younes Al Blooshi,
Majid Al Balooshi, Mohammad Al Alwi, Juma Al Mheiri, Yousuf Lashkari, Saeed Saad, Adel Mohammed, Ahmed Al Shei, Thani Al Mheiri and Maktoom Al Hajj.
The UAE are in Group B alongside Iraq, Libya and Jordan and face Iraq in the opener on Friday.
They endured a rude awakening to life at the elite level but their 11-try thrashing at the hands of Dubai Exiles hasn’t scared off the Dubai Eagles.
They were thumped 85-8 on the West Asia Premiership’s opening day last Friday – their first competitive fixture since being created this summer – enough to have anyone wondering if starting a club from scratch and throwing themselves into the lion’s den was the brightest idea.
Head coach Pat Benson, however, insists Eagles have been holding their heads high this week.
“The mood in the camp is good,” said Benson.
“The boys were happy to get the first game out of the way. It was a chance to play the first competitive game and we were able to look at footage of ourselves for the first time which makes my job a bit easier, giving feedback.”
Eagles will welcome Abu Dhabi Saracens to Dubai Sports City tomorrow and, having been set up around six weeks ago and with just seven players turning up to the first training session, Benson is eying it as an opportunity for further progress.
“We’re looking forward to this weekend,” he added.
“We’ve not put any more emphasis on this game, it’s just another chance to play and we’re grateful for the opportunity to play against these teams because they’ve been doing it a long time.
“They’ve been successful at what they’re doing so it’s nice to test ourselves. We’re using the games to give as many players as we can exposure to Premiership rugby and the lads just want that experience.”
As for Sarries, they’ve been preoccupied with their own, significant problems. Having had a plethora of players pilfered this summer, they were dealt an unexpected blow at the beginning of August when they were left without a home when Al Ghazal Golf Club was closed.
There were fears the club could even fold but Sarries defied the odds and confidence is swarming around the club – despite a 28-13 defeat on the opening day last week to Dubai Hurricanes.
“It was a game we should have won with the very potent backline we have, we just didn’t give them enough opportunities,” said chairman Jay Danielson.
“But it was great to have a team out there and the guys are really enjoying it which is what matters. There’s a few positions we are still searching for some depth in, but overall everyone is excited about the season. We don’t plan on being whipping boys.”
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.”