Abu Dhabi Saracens head coach Peter Henderson claims “the gloves are off” as the club look to bounce back from an abysmal 2017/18 season that saw them win just one game on the field and come close to extinction off it.
Ravages of their star players over recent years were combined with a flurry of changes off the field ahead of and over the course of last season, while the temporary loss of their Al Ghazal home on the eve of the 2017/18 campaign threatened their very existence.
It’s all a far cry from being crowned kings of West Asia in 2015.
They survived, however, stayed together and even though they endured a miserable term full of heavy defeats and humiliation, they are determined to rise from the ashes next season.
A statement of intent is pre-season, which starts for Sarries on June 21. And Henderson expects 2018/19 to be vastly different after a “no nonsense” player meeting earlier this month where aims for the forthcoming campaign were laid out.
“Last season I was thrust into the position of head coach. I didn’t have the time nor the resources that was needed and it showed,” said Henderson, who is kept busy away from the playing and training field by his job as an Etihad pilot.
“This season our players will know that the gloves are off. I know what is required to play and win at this level and last year we missed the mark. That changes this season.
“We’re starting early but for a reason. Our pre-season is 100 per cent targeted at mental strength. The fitness and conditioning, while extremely important, is a by-product.”
Sarries fell prey to Dubai Eagles in September 2017, going down 17-11 as the fledgling Eagles – expected to flop – won on just their second senior outing.
They got revenge in January, earning a 14-10 triumph in Abu Dhabi – but it was their sole victory in 12 West Asia Premiership fixtures as they finished rock bottom with just three points and a points difference of -455.
Henderson insists Sarries have already been bolstered by several new arrivals that strengthen the club’s depth and talent.
“As chairman Jakes Basson says ‘We didn’t give up’,” added Henderson.
“Sure, we had many set-backs, almost on a daily basis, but we didn’t give up and we finished. We have set in motion a new club culture and values that we will not compromise on.
“To be honest we have an open door policy both in terms of recruitment and selection. No favourites, not ever. As a player I’ve been at the wrong end of a coach’s inner circle and also been inside it. So I refuse to let that happen.
“We offer the chance for every player to play first grade if that is his goal. And we have a unique ability. Because we are expanding we are attracting players who might feel that a first grade jersey is out of their reach where they are.
“For me it’s cut and dry, you either have what I want in a first grade player or you don’t: unrelenting, absolute determination, commitment and passion to win. No shortcuts.”
Sarries intend to enter teams into the UAE and West Asia Premiership in 2018/19, as well as the UAE Conference Leagues, a change from last term whereby their second grade team (internally known as the ‘OGs’ or ‘Other Guys’) played in the Community League.
“The Club took the decision last year to play the OG’s in the Community League because we knew we had to restructure and rebuild while also providing an avenue for the more social yet competitive players to continue to play,” added Henderson.
“With numbers growing, a revitalised culture and feeling, the committee and coaching staff believe that the OG’s need to play at a higher standard to improve player depth and to minimalise the gap between Premiership and Conference.”
As well as the senior men’s teams, Sarries have a growing ladies team and are also looking to relaunch their junior rugby programme aimed at children of all ages.
Being located so close to such a major expat area (Al Raha Beach, Al Raha Gardens, Al Banar, Al Muneera, Al Zeina, Al Reef, Khalifia City A and B, Shakhbout), the club hopes to offer the enjoyment of being part of a rugby club to everyone.
Sarries will train during the regular season every Monday and Wednesday from 19:00-20:30. Interested players or social members can email [email protected] for more information.
Warren Gatland heads into Wales’ final game against Argentina in an enviable position.
Barring a humiliation in Santa Fe, this summer tour can already be deemed a success for the men in red.
Building on the back of a promising Six Nations, wins to date against an albeit depleted South Africa side, and a solid Argentina team, have shown Gatland an almost unknown squad-depth a little over a year out from the World Cup.
After seeing the names listed for the touring party, few Welshmen would have carried much hope going into the controversial one-off fixture with South Africa in Washington, or the two-game series in South America against an Argentina side buoyed by the scintillating form of the Jaguares in Super Rugby.
Shorn of the talents of the influential Alun Wyn Jones, No.8 Taulupe Faletau, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny to name a few, Wales have been able to blood youth and hand out some vital game-time with the 2019 showpiece looming.
Leadership has been another key element for development on the tour. More than a few eyebrows were raised when Cory Hill and Ellis Jenkins were handed joint captaincy ahead of the tour, but it is an inspired choice from Gatland.
Hill is establishing himself as a regular member of the second row alongside Wyn Jones, and is the likely heir to the throne when it comes to the leadership role in that engine room when the Swansea man hangs up his boots.
He has already shown his improvement as a player with superb handling and running with ball-in-hand highlighting his Six Nations campaign. Leadership, it a skill generally learned through experience and his skippering of the side in last week’s win over the Puma’s is a terrific start.
It’s a slightly different deal for Jenkins, who is one name in a hugely competitive battle for back-row slots. However, while the likes of James Davies, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton would all lay claim to the jersey, there is a real sense Jenkins is being groomed for the long-term captaincy – and with it that open-side jersey.
With added depth and competition will come difficult decisions for Gatland, but it will be a nice headache as he sculpts a side that can shine in Japan.
Joe Launchbury is losing his battle to play in England’s second Test against South Africa after missing training once again on Tuesday.
The Wasps captain has been unable to practise with the squad since suffering a calf problem 11 days ago, an injury that prevented him from participating in last Saturday’s 42-39 defeat at Ellis Park.
And the outlook on his involvement in the second instalment of the series in Bloemfontein is looking increasingly bleak ahead of Thursday’s team announcement.
“Joe was at training this morning (Tuesday) but was training on his own. He was movingly reasonably well so we’ll see where he is later in the week,” scrum coach Neal Hatley said.
“We’ll see if he’s able to train tomorrow. We need to see how he feels after seeing the physios.”
If Launchbury is ruled out, England will be forced into a dramatic back five reshuffle in light of Nick Isiekwe’s tactical substitution shortly before half-time in Johannesburg.
Having been pulled early in the first Test, Isiekwe is unlikely to play again in this series leaving Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill as the only recognised second rows in the squad, with Brad Shields also an option in the position.
There is better news over hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, who has been cleared to play after picking up a hamstring niggle as a second-half replacement at Ellis Park.
“Luke was able to train. We did some live scrums and Luke took part in those. He’s good,” Hatley said.
England must topple the Springboks at Free State Stadium if they are to avoid a fifth-successive Test defeat and rescue the series after falling short in a pulsating opener.
“We’ve had a good look at the first Test and have identified the areas that we need to address and the areas which we thought we did well in,” Hatley said.
“First and foremost we want a win. We scored close to 40 points at Ellis Park so we’re pleased with a lot of the things we did in attacking including five tries. It’s just other areas that we need to tighten up on.”