Abu Dhabi Saracens chairman Jacob Basson has hit back in the row over forfeiting two games against Dubai Exiles – insisting the safety and well-being of players is the most important thing to him and the club.
Exiles kicked up a ruckus on the eve of the final West Asia Premiership fixture last week when Sarries withdrew from the game on Wednesday, two days before the sides were due to meet at Al Ghazal.
Exiles were left frustrated with club chairman Mike Wolff calling on struggling Sarries to withdraw from Gulf rugby’s top-flight.
It was the second time in the Premiership this season that Sarries had forfeited against Exiles – meaning there was zero league fixtures between the sides in 2017/18.
As a result, Exiles were awarded a bonus point win, while Sarries had a point deducted, meaning they finished bottom of the Premiership with a mere three points to their name.
But Basson responded this week to criticism pointed the club’s way, claiming the Exiles decision was unavoidable.
“The injury train has made Sarries its home station as we had a very tough season. It is something that cost us badly. Very badly,” said Basson.
“This has exposed our need for depth. No-one is to blame for that, but these are unavoidable circumstances that resulted in us not being able to play certain games.
“The safety and well-being of all Sarries players comes first and we as a club will never compromise this. Sometimes the hardest decision is knowing when to tell a player ‘no’.
“While we are hurting with injuries the future looks seriously exciting once these players come back healthy, fitter and stronger.”
Among a host of injuries leaving them depleted, captain Jonny Taylor had revealed a number of the club’s French players who are employed as soldiers had also been called up for military duty.
It’s been a surreal season for Sarries. Although they’ve struggled on the pitch, their woes must feel like a vacation away from their off the field issues – which started with them beginning the season without a pitch following the closure of Al Ghazal Golf Club, their home since coming into existence in 2011.
Sarries played a number of home games early on at Al Forsan, while changes behind the scenes also left the ship rudderless.
Strangely, however, player numbers swelled and new owners at Al Ghazal, in the shadow of Abu Dhabi International Airport, took Sarries under their wing and restored them to their original home.
Basson came in as chairman in January following predecessor Jay Danielson’s return home to Australia just before Christmas. And he has been enamored by the club’s fight and will to survive – with the drama on the field a minor detail.
“Our senior teams are pure fighters until the end,” added Basson.
“Even though we had a very tough season we managed to get by every day without sponsors or mountains of cash. To that I take my hat off to the committee and to each and every player who not only paid out of their own pockets to keep the club going, but are still doing it to ensure that we have a club we can proudly call Saracens.
“Saracens have had to adapt under circumstances that no-one would wish for, with a non-apologetic rugby culture based on old fashioned principles and ideas.
“Every member of our club has a role to play; be it on or off the pitch. It proves how a truly team orientated club has the passion to fight against the odds and give everything for Sarries.”
When Ireland step out at Twickenham on Saturday chasing Grand Slam glory there will be another thriller taking place 300 miles south-east in Brussels.
An in-form Spain side – currently ranked 19 in the world – are on the brink of direct qualification to a first Rugby World Cup since 1999 when they take on Belgium at Kleine Heinz Stadium.
Georgia may top the table having completed all their five matches, but a win in Brussels would lift the Lions to second place in the standings and an automatic place in Pool A alongside Ireland, Scotland and hosts Japan in the showpiece event next September.
In their four Rugby World Cup European qualifier matches this season, Los Leones have lost just once – a 23-10 defeat in Tbilisi – and continue to show signs of improvement with each match.
In front of 15,000 people last Sunday – and watched by King Felipe VI – Spain scored 12 tries to comprehensively beat Germany 84-10 in Madrid.
Of the current 26-man squad, 17 of the players ply their trade in France with clubs like Bayonne, Narbonne, Grenoble and Beziers.
The remaining nine players line out in Spain’s domestic rugby competition – the Division de Honour – with four at Alcobendas, two with Valladolid and El Salavador, and one with Ordizia.
Central to their attacking prowess this season is Mathieu Peluchon. The 30-year-old full-back is – like some members of the squad – born in France and plays for Albi in Pro D2.
A native of Bordeaux, Peluchon has been the tipping point between Spain winning and losing in recent months, scoring 25 across the four matches.
Another bright spark starting to show his class is Charly Malie – a Beziers man who is developing into a real gem at Top 14 side Pau where the likes of Colin Slade, Conrad Smith and Steffon Armitage are honing their skills.
Although players like Malie may not be regular starters with their clubs each week, they are still involved in the set-up, learning, playing against better opposition and bringing back valuable skills to the international set-up.
To have players coming across the border from France in a bid to play international rugby with Spain is only going to help the development of the sport going forward.
Whether people have an issue with a player swapping his national colours or not, it’s down to the individual and they have a right to maximise their potential in what is a short career. France’s loss – with all their talent already – is Spain and other nations’ gains.
Signs of rugby’s rise have been evident for some time now. In 2016, the Top 14 final was staged at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, the first time the top-most clash in French rugby was contested outside the country.
Over 99,124 turned up to watch an epic battle between eventual winners Racing 92 and Toulon.
And later this year, the Champions Cup final will take place at the Mames Stadium in Bilbao, which is another indication of World Rugby looking to develop the sport in Spain.
With 51,123 registered rugby union players in the country, participation rates have jumped but the challenges of having to contend with football will always prove difficult.
Most kids growing up around Spain are more likely to follow Real Madrid or Barcelona and idolise sports stars like Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Rafa Nadal rather than a venerable prop with ears like satellite dishes in Benat Auzqui.
It’ll always prove a test when the country is sprinkled with football stardom, but being able to showcase their skills in a Rugby World Cup will only do wonders to the development of the sport in Spain.
Saturday’s match in Brussels will take place at the 8,000-seater Kleine Heizel Stadium; a far cry from the 82,000 attendance set to be at Twickenham. And what an occasion it would be to see Spain back competing against the best in Japan in 2019.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins coach Mike McFarlane was magnanimous in defeat, revealing he emailed Jebel Ali Dragons head coach Henry Paul congratulating him on his side lifting the West Asia Premiership title.
Quins went into the final week of the Premiership season in second place, but in the driving seat to retain their trophy as they travelled to Dubai Sports City for an eminently winnable game against lowly Dubai Eagles – with a bonus point win expected.
That was achieved, with Quins winning 55-3 – meaning Dragons also required a maximum victory, but at fortress Bahrain, who hadn’t lost a home game in 14 months.
But that’s exactly what Dragons did, winning 36-32 in Saar to lift a first trophy in four years – not since April 2014 and winning the Gulf Top 6 final had Dragons won a piece of silverware.
“I’m pretty gutted but we did everything we could as a squad,” admitted McFarlane.
“We’ve put in some tremendous performances this season, at times when we were up against it. We will look back on that loss at home to Dragons as a slip up but that’s the nature of such a competitive league.”
The 2017/18 Premiership has been an epic competition, with the title fiercely contested between four teams – Dragons, Quins, Bahrain and Dubai Exiles – all of whom could have won it with two weeks remaining and three in with a shout on the final day.
McFarlane added: “I’ve already emailed Henry Paul and Johnny MacDonald to congratulate them. To go over to Bahrain and get that result is a cracking effort so fair play to them and their lads.”
After a quintuple for Quins last term – they won the West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens, West Asia Cup and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League titles – McFarlane’s men have now relinquished their grip on two, with Dragons claiming West Asia supremecy and Exiles winning at the Sevens in December.
But there is still the UAE Premiership and West Asia Cups to defend, with Quins in the domestic final and receiving a home semi-final against Exiles in the Cup in two weeks’ time after finishing runners-up.
And McFarlane insists there’s plenty to be positive about.
“Absolutely. The boys are mentally strong and resolute and will come back with a bang no doubt,” he said. “They will always give 100 per cent and that’s all I can ever ask for.”