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.”
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.”