It’s been an arduous summer in which the very future of the club was threatened – but you can’t prevent Abu Dhabi Saracens director of rugby Stephen Hamilton from being positive about the future.
After all, when Hamilton arrived at the club in a dual player and youth coach role three summers ago, Little Ruckers, the club’s brand new youth development programme, started with just three junior members.
Numbers today stand at a healthy 150, with Hamilton hopeful teams from every age group from under-6 to under-14 will represent the club in 2017/18 when the youth rugby season kicks off at the end of this month.
“We’re up to 150 kids now across the whole club,” beamed Hamilton.
“There’s a long way to go but we’re pushing forward. The figure when I first started was three kids so the percentage of numbers has definitely been added to.
“The juniors will have teams from U6 to U14s this year. There’s certainly some scope to bolster numbers in some age groups but we’re positive numbers will be filled and we’ll have at least one team per age group when the fixtures start at the end of October.”
There are changes afoot to Sarries’ youth set-up, namely a name change with the news that Zayed Cricket Academy are coming on board to lend a hand.
Despite the growth of the junior set-up in the last three years, the travails of the senior Sarries side have trickled down to have an impact on the kids. Sarries lost their home pitch when Al Ghazal Golf Club closed at the beginning of August, which had an effect on everyone connected with the club.
And Hamilton insists the Saracens ethos will remain at the core of the slightly new path the club’s youth development is taking.
“It’s really promising and positive for the future of the juniors,” added the Englishman.
“As a club we’re under the same financial strain as everyone else and obviously Al Ghazal is now off the cards. But we’ve been able to make an arrangement with the guys at Zayed Cricket Academy.
“They’ll be a partner to the club and the juniors and give them scope to grow and develop, under the cricket club banner as opposed to Saracens.”
Two new pitches are nearing completion at the Academy’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium venue in time for December’s FIFA Club World Cup, which will be home to Sarries’ growing young army.
“The bitter part of it is we’re going to lose the Saracens brand but the brilliant part of it is the kids who are going to lose that brand are going to be able to grow and expand more drastically and at a lot lower cost due to the support of the cricket stadium,” added Hamilton.
“So the structure and shape stays the same. My involvement stays the same but it’s just going to shift name. We’re still to decide what that name and brand will be but it will give us the remit to push on.
“With what the stadium is doing, using the facility as a tool to allow more sports to be played, which is pretty unique to the UAE, we’re really confident it will be a bit of a game-changer for the club and its development.”
It’s been a catch-22 situation for Hamilton who has seen the youth culture at Sarries grow under his leadership, yet the unpredictable climate the game finds itself in across the Emirates has led to the new direction being taken.
“Everything has been really positive over the last two or three seasons,” added Hamilton.
“We’ve got bigger and stronger every year but this year without a shadow of a doubt, the stresses and strains with finances means playing rugby and the kids’ progression has become secondary to can you actually afford to run the club?
“It means the cricket stadium takes on a few more responsibilities and it frees me up too. I can be there as a coach and volunteer and support the club.
“The club can become a committee-based club run by parents and the management and everything is focused on the kids. It will change my dynamic but I’m still there to support, I’m just not so integral behind the scenes.
“It’s just an uncoupling to allow the juniors to function as their own being to develop. The cricket stadium also have links to UAE Touch who have their own coaches too, but it is still a parent run club, they’ll be looking for support at various age groups where required.
“And parents were keen to keep the Saracens ethos and the principles we’ve put in place. Saracens are our core values and backbone and that desire to compete and be successful is the same, it will just be re-branded slightly.”