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.”
In a bizarre prelude to the upcoming Rugby League World Cup, New Zealand have been decimated by eight players defecting to Tonga, including one of their biggest stars in Jason Taumalolo.
A Kangaroo has also made the switch, prop Andrew Fifita, as Tonga suddenly shape up as one of the tournament favourites.
What made the change of heart all the more shocking was how Kiwi head coach David Kidwell found out about the decision – on the radio 48 hours before Cowboys second rower Taumalolo was due to be named in the New Zealand World Cup squad.
“I haven’t had a conversation with Jason, a face-to-face or on the phone,” Kidwell admitted.
He was then asked: “Is that the most frustrating thing, that he wasn’t able to look you in the eye?”
“I think that’s the most disappointing thing” replied Kidwell, “I respect his decision but I think a conversation between myself and him was a good thing to do.
“As far as we were concerned Jason was part of our World Cup team and to find out two days out…that’s the disappointing thing about finding out that late.”
New Zealand’s captain Adam Blair was less kind, launching a withering attack on the joint 2016 Dally M medal winner.
“You’ve got to be a man and own up to what you want to do,” he told NewstalkZB. “If you were man enough, you’d make the phone call and tell them.
“He could have told them a couple of weeks ago because I don’t think it was a last-minute decision.
“Obviously this was something he was thinking about doing.”
Blair said he will find it hard to see Taumalolo wearing the famous black jersey again, which incredibly could happen if the 24-year-old switches his allegiance back to New Zealand after the World Cup.
“At this stage, it feels like we’ve been let down a lot,” he said. “So do we let them back in the team?”
“You’re going to have to find some way to be able to trust them again but does that cause issues and problems that we don’t need?”
In addition to Taumalolo, the other Kiwi players to swap to Tonga are: Manu Ma’u, David Fusitu’a, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Tui Lolohea, Solomone Kata, Konrad Hurrell and Manu Vatuvei.
It’s another blow to the credibility of the tournament already under attack for its lax eligibility rules.
International rules allow eligible players to switch to a Tier Two or Tier Three country before a tournament if they are not selected by a Tier One nation – Australia, New Zealand and England.
This of course does not include Taumalolo, who New Zealand fully intended to name in their squad.
Players must declare their allegiance before October 13, and can qualify for nations through their parents or grandparents.
So you get a situation where Kangaroo full-back James Tedesco, the NRL’s players’ player of the year last season, switched to Italy after being left out by Australian coach Mal Meninga.
Jarryd Hayne also declared allegiance to Fiji, although he has played 12 Tests for Australia.
But it’s Taumalolo’s defection which has created as much havoc as one of his barnstorming runs.
In the greatest irony, Tonga will meet New Zealand on November 11 in Hamilton, and looking at the respective squads the Pacific Islanders will start favourites. So you have a laughable set of circumstances where Taumalolo runs out to play against the country he represented against Australia in May.
You could never imagine it happening in football or rugby union, and one of the reasons why the Rugby League World Cup will never be considered on that level.
For his part, New Zealand born Taumalolo – who parents are both Tongan – said he just wanted to rugby league become stronger in the Pacific island nation.
“Obviously with the rule changes they applied earlier this year, it gave a platform for us bigger names to represent smaller nations and tier-two nations” he said.
“It was a good opportunity to make them a more competitive country in rugby league.”
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.”