It’s been an eventful year in regional rugby and Sport360‘s Matt Jones had plenty to ponder when putting together this 2017 review.
Cost-cutting and better competition has meant that Abu Dhabi Harlequins are facing a stiffer challenge for trophies while the UAE national team are seeing positive signs allowing for optimism under the guidance of Apollo Perelini.
Dubai Exiles ended an 11-year drought at the Dubai Rugby Sevens while Quins’ coach Mike McFarlane showed class in his side’s dominant 2016-2017 season.
Here are our picks for standout players, coach, achievement and game from a year gone by in regional rugby…
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Saki Nasau (Jebel Ali Dragons)
A truly special talent. Impressively understated last season after a summer switch from Al Ain Amblers, the athletic centre has scorched a trail in the early part of this season. Lightning pace, a muscular frame, he can beat you with searing pace or raw power. Impressed in defeat to Fiji ahead of the Sevens. He will lead Dragons’ charge.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Mike McFarlane (Abu Dhabi Quins)
After sweeping all trophies in 2016/17, who else was it going to be? Quins were utterly dominant last season, lifting the West Asia Premiership and West Asia Cup in the early part of 2017, while April’s UAE Premiership triumph over Dragons bookended a truly memorable campaign following Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Champions League success in 2016. Bravo Mr McFarlane. The gauntlet has been laid down.
ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR
Dubai Exiles win Dubai Sevens
All the talk heading into the Sevens centred on three-time defending champions Quins looking to make it four wins in a row, with last year’s finalists Dragons hoping to go one better. Exiles, who last won the Gulf Men’s League in 2006, snuck under the radar and then produced a monumental display to win a thriller in the final over Dragons, 19-12.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Dubai Exiles 18-22 Jebel Ali Dragons (October 13, 2017)
A see-saw encounter that really announced Dragons as a force to be reckoned with. There had been a lot of hype surrounding Henry Paul’s side since the summer but this was the game where they proved it is far from bluster. Carel Thomas’ brilliant sniping run looked to be the winning try at the death for Exiles, only for a contentious refereeing decision to rule it out for a knock-on. Ferociously entertaining.
TEAM OF THE YEAR
Replacements: Epeli Davetawalu (Dragons), Mark Burnell (Bahrain), Conor Coakley (Eagles); Stephen
Hamilton (Saracens), Andrew Semple (Quins), Durandt Gerber (Exiles), Iwan Phillips (Bahrain)
Financial toil so crippling that one club was forced to fold, the summer of 2017 will not be remembered fondly by the UAE rugby community. But with the advent of a new season has come renewed optimism.
And after Abu Dhabi Harlequins swept all before them last season, the 2017/18 campaign, blighted by the cost-cutting summer crunch, has begun with a rich variety of challengers looking to take them down.
Mike McFarlane’s men have already relinquished their hold on one of the five jewels in their 2016/17 season crown when storied rivals Dubai Exiles won a thrilling Dubai Sevens title earlier this month – hoisting a trophy at a tournament they started over 50 years ago for the first time in more than a decade.
Jacques Benade’s side are making up for lost time in more ways than one. Their defence of the West Asia and UAE Premiership titles from two years ago was shoddy 12 months on as they fell by the wayside while Quins and other rivals strengthened.
They tore into new boys Dubai Eagles – created in the summer and given a chair at UAE rugby’s top table immediately – on opening night in September and followed that up with victory over Dubai Hurricanes.
But three successive defeats have followed, to Quins, Bahrain and Jebel Ali Dragons, the trio leading the way at the top of the West Asia Premiership after five games in what has been a disjointed start to the season.
Only a point separates joint leaders Bahrain and Dragons, and second-placed Quins, going into 2018. Exiles are seven points adrift of Quins but will hope their Dubai Sevens triumph reignites their bid for glory.
Quins claimed the quintuple a year ago while Exiles won the double prior to that. But everything so far suggests picking a winner of the WAP, UAE Premiership, UAE Premiership Cup and West Asia Cup will be an absolute lottery.
The four main contenders appear to be in a league of their own. All have scored north of 160 points (Dragons have the most with 194, Bahrain the least, 160), and all have shipped less than 100 (Bahrain 64, Quins 96).
Quins and Bahrain drew 15-15 at the end of September – Louie Tonkin still searching for a maiden win over Mike McFarlane.
The West Asia side have improved dramatically during the Welshman’s 17 months in charge. Dragons, meanwhile, continue to look impressive under the stewardship of former dual code international Henry Paul, having made giant strides last term.
If any team looks more of a threat to Quins’ haul of trophies, it is them, although they will be smarting following a defeat to Exiles at the Sevens that they didn’t feel was strictly legal.
A tantalising January schedule – featuring Dragons hosting Bahrain, Quins hosting Dragons and then Bahrain the following week – means the teams will have to come out of the blocks all guns blazing in the new year.
There will be no room for error, with Exiles looming in the background, waiting to pounce on any mistakes.
Meanwhile, Canes, Abu Dhabi Saracens and Eagles look likely to be left fighting for scraps – although each has their own agenda. Canes will fiercely want to exert their grip on fifth spot, while they can be pleased with progress – a semi-final place earned at the Sevens after they overcame Bahrain in the last eight.
After Dubai Wasps were forced to fold in the summer, there were real fears Sarries would follow suit after they were shorn of players mounting into double figures. They were also kicked out of their Al Ghazal home in August.
Yet playing numbers have hardly been higher, and while they won’t threaten the silverware and suffered the ignominy of being Eagles’ first prey, getting through the campaign would represent massive success for director of rugby Stephen Hamilton and Co.
As for Eagles, they are just trying to build a nest among the established core sides. A maiden win as a club came perhaps sooner than expected, against Sarries in just their second game.
That has given them a launch pad and they will just look to maintain their lofty status among the elite and build for the future – a thriving mini and youth section has already been established.
It might not be at the heady heights of professionalism like its illustrious rival, football, but the UAE national rugby team is certainly in better health on the field than those playing with the ball at their feet instead of their hands.
The UAE has been on a steady ascent over the last few years, since their nadir was reached with a 30-13 loss in a play-off to Singapore in April 2014. It was a result that sent them spiralling down into Asia Rugby’s third tier – the UAE suffering the ignominy of relegation on their home patch of The Sevens.
Performance manager Roelof Koetze had been making steady progress but left in October 2015 for a job with the Pumas in his native South Africa. He handed the reins over to former dual code international star Apollo Perelini and the nation has been on an upward trajectory ever since.
While the low point was reached on that dark April 23 day, the zenith came this past May when Perelini and an ever-strengthening side fought alongside Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines for the Asia Rugby Championship Division I title and a chance to join the big guns of Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea. There was even a remote possibility of a chance to feature at the Rugby World Cup in two years’ time in Japan.
Okay, so hopes of making it to the game’s greatest showpiece in the Land of the Rising Sun were quickly dashed as Perelini’s side flopped to three chastening defeats in Malaysia – yet the seed has been sewn. UAE rugby is on the rise.
It’s a far cry from 2014 when representing the UAE was seen as a chore, rather than an honour. The players that featured in Malaysia received a great education in what to expect at the next level – their opponents were fitter, faster and better conditioned. But it gave the squad – the best UAE one assembled in years, possibly ever – a platform from which to build.
Let’s hear from some of the All #Emirati #AlMaha team as they share their Favourite Rugby Moment#UAERugby #MyRugbyMoment #RunWild #Sevens Thanks @emirates for helping to create these special moments! pic.twitter.com/oGp7vU1C21
— UAE Rugby Federation (@uaerugby) December 2, 2017
Thankfully, Asia Rugby decided against relegating the UAE from Division I so they will feature again next May and they will now know what is required to succeed.
Add in the fact their ranks are set to be bolstered by another wave of newly-qualified players – chief among the candidates likely to pique Perelini’s interest being Jebel Ali Dragons’ Fijian centre Saki Nasau – and progress is possible.
At youth level, the future also looks extremely bright. Perelini took a UAE Under-18 girls’ team to the Paris World Games in July, and they have progressed rapidly since becoming the first all-Emirati female team to represent the UAE in rugby at the 2016 Dubai Sevens.
So proud of my @uaerugby U19’s for winning the Div 1 Championship against Korea 19-12. These boys played with great passion for their adopted home of UAE and dug deep to hold on for the win. pic.twitter.com/lMq9pd4tTA
— Apollo Perelini (@Apollo11Rugby) December 16, 2017
The UAE U19 men’s side have just returned home following a victorious showing at the Asia Rugby U19 Division 1 Championship in Manila, Perelini leading his talented young side to a 19-12 victory in the final over South Korea that sees them promoted to next year’s top tier U19 Asia Rugby Championship.