There is real excitement emerging from the shadows of Abu Dhabi International Airport that one of the capital’s two rugby clubs can achieve lift-off next season.
Abu Dhabi Saracens suffered endless turbulence last season and there were fears the club could even drop out of the sky altogether.
After winning the West Asia Championship in 2015 – having only formed four years earlier – Sarries appeared to be soaring.
However, after chairman Dave Jackson stepped aside, things began to go awry. Two years of seeing their talented player pool plundered by rivals saw them unable to compete on the field.
Off it, meanwhile, they started last term homeless following the closure of Al Ghazal Golf Club and subsequent loss of rugby pitch, their nest since coming into existence in 2011.
Sarries played a number of home games early on at Al Forsan last term, while changes behind the scenes also left the ship rudderless – long-term chairman Jay Danielson returned home to Australia at Christmas.
Player numbers actually swelled even though they suffered the indignity of being fledgling team Dubai Eagles’ maiden victims, while they also finished below them and rock bottom of both the West Asia and UAE Premiership.
They withstood the ups and downs though and got through the season.
They even returned to their home ground at Al Ghazal – a mere few minutes’ flight from the airport – when new owners for the golf club were found.
They may have had wings clipped, but under the guidance of head coach Peter Henderson – himself a pilot for Etihad – there is renewed hope and optimism that things could be looking up again for the club.
“At Abu Dhabi Saracens we have been busy in the past month working on our pre-season but also setting up club infrastructure, our new website is now live so we are going through a transformation,” said vice chairman Richard Croft.
“So far we’ve brought in five or six quality new players, a couple from overseas and some moving over to us from other UAE clubs.”
Sarries are dead serious about taking a huge leap forward in 2018/19, both on and off the field, evidenced by a proper club structure being put in place.
“A world Class preparation platform has been provided covering strength and conditioning preparation and player welfare,” added Croft.
“We have been lucky to have fantastic support for our pre-season from our fitness partners European Club and Vanity Fitness (European club supporting the men’s strength programme and Vanity supporting the ladies’ dedicated fitness sessions).
“We are lucky to have partnerships agreed covering a qualified orthopedic surgeon and his team of physios, combined with Smilerite which provide medical, physio and dental protection needs for all our members.”
On the field, meanwhile, the players and coaches have been hard at it, with pre-season starting supremely early, on June 21.
“Pre-season phase one has been going well with five quality focused sessions per week concentrating on strength, conditioning and baseline fitness,” Croft went on.
“Numbers have been strong considering the time of year, with people away on holiday, as over 60 per cent of the squad are training together.
“We now look ahead to phase two commencing on July 29, with six sessions a week, while strength training continues we also move focus to skills and rugby development.”
Sarries and other clubs across the UAE will be returning to pre-season at different times over the summer. But clubs have a finite amount of time to add to their squads for the coming season, with the UAE Rugby Federation’s Rugby Player Transfer Window closing on July 31.
You can visit the new Saracens website at www.adsaracens.com.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins Under-16s won all four matches on what proved to be both an intense and emotional tour to Kenya, including beating one of the country’s elite youth teams.
The team began the tour with a victory over a community development side, which served as a curtain raiser to a 2019 Rugby World Cup qualifier between Kenya and Uganda.
However, the day ended on a tragic note as players received news that former teammate Shane Duggan had passed away, aged just 16, following a road accident back in his native Ireland.
Duggan had been part of the club at various age grades while his family had lived in Abu Dhabi for 10 years from 2006-16, after which they returned home to the Emerald Isle.
Quins’ next match, a tough 20-14 victory against the Kenyan Harlequins Vandals, was preceded by a minute’s silence for Duggan, who played for the Abu Dhabi club for eight years from 2008 until his family’s departure in 2016.
Quins started the match with formidable intensity against a team that contained two Kenyan U20 internationals and play in the national men’s third division.
Daniel Maguire scored the first points of the game, going over in the corner after a solid scrum led to the ball flowing swiftly across the back line.
The Vandals scored next, with a fine length-of-the-field try, but the Abu Dhabi side struck again just before half-time following a multi-phase move, with second row Alex Darling bursting through the defense and off-loading to flanker Milo Bly to score under the posts.
The second half was just as tense, with the Kenyan side scoring through their lightning fast full back, Kennedy – a Kenyan 100 metre youth sprinting champion.
Harlequins centre Ben Whiting then kicked a crucial penalty to inch his side ahead, before winger Alex Gough finished an excellent move in the last minute to spark jubilant celebrations.
“The squad performed beyond all expectations, with every single person playing the match of their lives,” said head coach Dominic Whiting.
“They were driven by a desire to pay tribute to Shane Duggan, and to celebrate his passion for the game, tenacity and commitment to the team. Our sister club, the Kenyan Harlequins, played a huge part in what was a very emotional day, and were amazing hosts.”
Quins also went on to secure victories over Nairobi School and Mombasa Rugby Club to sign off from their tour unbeaten.
The news of a 29-year-old retiring in any walk of life would generally come as a shock to most.
Even in sporting circles, common wisdom generally dictates that careers for most span into their 30s and even beyond.
However, in the case of Sam Warburton, there was a saddening air of inevitability surrounding his decision to call time on his rugby playing days.
The Welsh back-row has been dogged throughout his career with a catalogue of injuries so long it would make a stuntman wince.
Just a cursory glance shows everything from knee and ankle damage, hamstring issues in both legs, a broken jaw, fractured cheekbone, dislocated shoulder, nerve damage, stingers – all this in less than ten years, and we are only scratching the surface.
Then you come on to hot topics the game is still coming to terms with – concussion and neck injuries.
While head injuries are at the forefront of player safety conversation, Warburton managed to come away from the game relatively unscathed in that regard – with the only notable occurrence coming in a clash with England back in 2016. What has really ravaged the Cardiff Blues man is a persistent neck issue, that has required surgery on more than one occasion.
Rugby is probably leading the way in terms of head injury protocols. Awareness on the field from players, officials and medical staff is excellent, and the return-to-play protocols ensure those affected are not put back in the firing line before they are fit and well to do so.
Neck injuries are a different matter – but could have even more catastrophic consequences for those involved. There have been clampdowns on contact around the head and neck area in the tackle, but it’s on the ground where Warburton was most at risk.
The 74-times capped openside was a trailblazer when it comes to flank play in the northern hemisphere. He was a new breed of professional, who would eat, sleep and breathe rugby, shunning everything except what would go into making him the very best player possible.
And sadly this comes at a cost.
Warburton’s muscularity is more akin to that of a racehorse than it is a human. A superbly, some may say overly, developed muscular structure meant his frame carried 5 to 6kg in weight more than he would normally be comfortable with. Rugby these days is a land of the giants, and particularly in the forwards, only the biggest and strongest survive.
This strength that Warburton held allowed him to get into positions others couldn’t in the ruck. His low body position would allow for the scavenging he built his career on but with that came a huge level of openness to hits in the clear out, with the neck and shoulder areas being particularly susceptible.
It is one of rugby’s great cliches to put the ‘body on the line’, but this was Warburton’s modus operandi. Rugby is termed a contact sport but that’s nonsense. It’s a collision sport, with the science in place to back that up. Lab testing has shown these hits can be similar in velocity to being hit by a car, time and time again.
For the paying public these collisions are the epitome of beautiful destruction. Thoroughbreds taking part in the ultimate test of physical domination. For the combatants the toll of their toil is stark. Sadly it’s only truly brought to widespread public consumption when a career is cut short as with Warburton.
The question to ask now has to be: is this the norm? Are careers destined to be a decade or less? Is that what we want the game to be?
If the size and strength of players remain, the answer to the above is an unequivocal ‘yes’. And there is little the authorities can do about that. Their fear is continued law changes will only serve to dilute the game people love, and that’s a more than valid argument.
For things to change there would need to be a complete mentality shift in the way the game is played, but even that is a flawed argument. People hark back to the days of smaller players, a faster game, with more emphasis on handling than collision. However in today’s professional era players have been honed into weapons: they are faster, often more nimble, and have the handling skills of the past, but packed as 100kg plus wrecking machines.
This is rugby in 2018. The dangers are very real and will seemingly not go away. That is what this beloved sport has become and while we must continue to do all we can to protect player welfare there has to be the realisation that injury levels are down to an evolutionary change, that is now almost impossible to reverse.