The big games will come thick and fast in the West Asia Premiership this season and the biggest one to take place on UAE soil thus far this season takes place at The Sevens on Friday when Dubai Exiles welcome Jebel Ali Dragons.
Exiles have rocketed out of the traps following two impressive wins in which they have racked up the points – 125 to be precise. But following destructive wins against new boys Dubai Eagles and a Hurricanes side in transition, the visit of Dragons is set to be a real test.
Henry Paul’s side have only played once as they had a bye two weekends ago, but on opening night they fought tooth and nail with Abu Dhabi Harlequins before having their hearts broken when Luke Stevenson put over a last-minute conversion to earn Quins a 34-33 victory.
But Jebel Ali skipper Ross Samson saw plenty to get excited about by his team in defeat to Quins.
“It’s a big weekend for us, it was a bit of a killer losing to Quins in the last minute so we need to get the show on the road with a big performance this weekend,” said the Scottish scrum-half.
“The result was a sore one and no-one likes losing but we can take a lot from the game in terms of performance.
“We were absolutely deadly at times so I’m excited to see more this weekend. We have some ridiculously good talent in the squad and I can’t wait for everyone to see these boys show how good they are.”
Injury may rule Exiles’ all-action lock Stephen Ferguson out of the game, but he is relishing a stern test for his team-mates, who have looked irresistible in the early weeks and have already started to erase the memories of a painful 2016/17.
“The team is looking slick and sharp,” admitted the Northern Irishman, who missed a few weeks after an operation to remove an abcess on his arm, which was unfortunately aggravated in a second team fixture he participated in against Quins last week.
“Hopefully we can build on the momentum from previous weeks. Unfortunately I’m unavailable, playing last week aggravated my arm and another infection popped up.
“I was having my best pre-season in a few years and I’m gutted this has happened again before the biggest game of the season. I’ll sit out this week and get better for Bahrain and Quins.”
Ferguson will be an avid spectator at The Sevens as he hopes Exiles can make it three in a row.
“This game will be the toughest so far,” he added.
“They made the final last year and have recruited well. Maybe as well as us. Our pack is big and having talked to a few of their guys that’s where they are worried.
“But we’ll stick to our plan and all going well it’ll be three in a row.”
Mike Wernham, meanwhile, admits there’s been a bit of soul-searching done within his Dubai Hurricanes camp over the last two weeks following a humbling 45-7 defeat last time out against Dubai rivals Exiles.
Canes were put to the sword by resurgent Exiles and director of rugby Wernham admits the whole squad is hurting following the demoralizing defeat – but he’s expecting a response when they take on Dubai Eagles tonight (Thursday).
“We’re a team that’s hurting this week,” said Wernham.
“We know we’re 10 times better than the display we put on against Exiles. We didn’t get to play and that’s all credit to Exiles. They have a big, big pack and completely dominated us. As head coach that’s hard to take.
“We didn’t put our hands up so what I’m expecting to see this week is a team looking to restore a bit of pride, seriously annoyed from the result two weeks ago.
“We’ve had two weeks, there’s been some home truths during the analysis and we’ve done the work to try and eradicate the errors in the set-piece.
“This time of year I also think we’re not playing the conditions well enough at the moment. The ball is soaking wet at night time.
“We need to realise the open expansive rugby we normally want to play and the positive intent we try to have when we play, we need to change that and have a bit more of a realistic mindset, so we’ve made a few changes to the team and structure.”
With that said, in for Canes this week at tight-head prop comes New Zealand prop Sam Tufuga – one of two players spending the season at Canes from Super Rugby franchise the Hurricanes as part of a deal between the two clubs.
He is joined in Dubai by loose-head Gerard Faitotoa, who will be on the bench against Eagles.
“Sam will start at tight-head with Gerard on the bench to hopefully make an impact,” added Wernham.
“We know we have a big task. We’ve got a hurt bunch of lads who have had their pride hurt and effort questioned. We’re one of the biggest and oldest clubs out here and we need to get a bit of self-respect back.”
Wernham is intrigued by the prospect of playing Eagles, who he is certain will have their tails up after a first-ever win in just their second competitive match against Abu Dhabi Saracens two weeks ago.
“There’s still a lot of people who are completely unsure what they’re going to be coming with,” added Wernham.
“They beat Saracens, they’re in the Premiership so we’ll give them the respect they deserve. They have their first win and they’re going to be looking to come and play some rugby.
“They’ll be the underdogs in any game they play this season, but the win has given them that little bit of confidence they need, so we’ve got to go and be realistic about our standards and target.
“We want to win and win comfortably. That’s not arrogance, that’s just me and that I know we should be winning. Hopefully we can deal with their threats, as they do have talent.”
For Eagles coach Pat Benson, he and his squad are just happy to be in a position of gaining valuable experience every week and every game they play.
“It’s going to be all the same really. We’re just giving more guys more exposure to Premiership rugby,” he said.
“Morale is high which hopefully means we’re not as nervous to try playing more and can piece more together. Hurricanes have some very good players and with their new influx from New Zealand, it will be a great challenge for our lads.”
Louie Tonkin isn’t reading too much into Abu Dhabi Saracens’ summer struggles and their morale-sapping loss to Dubai Eagles last time out – the “battering” his Bahrain boys took at the hands of Sarries last season is still at the forefront of his mind.
Bahrain lost 12-10 at Al Ghazal and Tonkin can still vividly remember the physical beating his side took that day against opponents who struggled all season but lost a lot of games by a converted try or less.
“Saracens haven’t had the best start but we’ve always found it incredibly difficult travelling there and we know they’re a hard, strong, physical side,” said the Welshman of a team who were downed 17-11 by new boys Eagles two weeks ago.
“They battered us last year and we ended up losing 12-10 so we have to step up physically.”
Tonkin’s side drew 15-15 with Abu Dhabi Harlequins on the same night Sarries were toiling at Dubai Sports City, and Friday’s game is the start of a demanding period for his men.
“It’s the start of a tough few weeks for us, we have Saracens away, Exiles away and Canes away so that’s tough,” said Tonkin who will be without captain Adam Wallace and fly-half Ross Preedy, both out with knee injuries.
Prop Rich Muncaster has also been lost for the season after being injured against Quins.
“But we’re focusing on our own performance and will try to build on the things we did well against Quins and also make improvements,” added Tonkin.
Bahrain proved to a lucky opponent for Sarries last season, with Winston Cowie’s side picking up a rare win against Tonkin’s visitors to Al Ghazal.
The problem for Sarries this time around is Al Ghazal is no longer an option after the adjoining golf club was closed earlier in the summer.
That means a change of venue to Zayed Sports City for Friday’s game, with the wider, high quality pitches possibly playing into Bahrain’s hands.
“We’re having to play at Zayed Sports City as Al Ghazal is still not sorted, which is a pain,” said Sarries chairman Jay Danielson.
“Al Ghazal has still not been given the green light with a new operator, so we’re using Zayed for now. It’s not ideal.
“It’s a big game, Bahrain will be good and we always enjoy playing them, but we have a heap of unavailable players due to travels, work and injury. Again, not ideal.”