Abu Dhabi Saracens have taken the decision to relegate themselves into the UAE Conference and only enter one senior men’s team into competition for the 2018/19 UAE rugby season.
The decision, labelled “responsible and realistic”, was taken by the club at a committee meeting recently with a view to continue a club rebuild after what has been a turbulent few years for the 2015 West Asia champions.
The club say its plan revolves around providing the best opportunities for the players to enjoy their rugby, still compete at a good level and deliver more successes from the hard work everyone at the new-look outfit has been putting in over the last 12 months.
“Since overcoming many of the difficulties from their recent past, the Saracens committee has decided to endorse a plan to continue rebuilding their foundations,” said director of rugby Peter Henderson.
“While we launched an unprecedented pre-season campaign for the players’ strength and conditioning as well as a media campaign (recently) we must not lose sight of our goals as a rugby club and the values we believe in.
“It serves us no long term gain to extend beyond the absolute limits of our means. The stresses to the players who would be required to step up a grade should injury or unavailability of other players dictate, as well as the financial cost to the club to travel to West Asia Cup and Premiership games, needed to be considered.
“Entering one team into the Conference league offers us unprecedented depth in our ranks, does not extend club finances beyond our means and gives the players real expectations of success on the pitch.
“We need to be responsible, realistic and maintain the passion every Sarries player and supporter deserves.”
Despite the likes of Henderson and club chairman Jake Basson, as well as a band of dedicated and diligent volunteers, stepping up during the course of last season to rescue Sarries from possible extinction, caution still needs to be preached after a difficult few years.
Former chairman Dave Jackson’s relinquishing of the reins after that West Asia triumph was the catalyst for change, with the club suffering two years of seeing players plundered by rivals.
They started last term homeless following the closure of Al Ghazal Golf Club which resulted in the subsequent loss of their home pitch.
Long-term chairman Jay Danielson returned home to Australia at Christmas and they finished rock bottom of both the West Asia and UAE Premiership.
They survived though and even returned home to Al Ghazal when new owners for the golf club were found.
And even though things are now looking up both on and off the pitch, Sarries are wary of being able to make sure they can get back up on their feet before thinking of entering a race.
“Too many teams are just one or two front row props away from being unable to safely compete,” said Basson, referring to a number of games Sarries were forced to concede during 2017/18.
Saracens had opposed suggestions made within the administration of UAE rugby and by rival teams to impose a fine on teams who forfeit matches.
“Injury or unexpected unavailability to players in key positions such as the front row or tight five happens all the time,” he said.
“To forfeit any game is an absolute last resort and desperate means to put player safety first in such circumstances. It is something no club wishes to ever entertain.
“And then to financially burden clubs already on bare shoestring budgets only rubs salt into the wound.
“What incentive would there be for successful clubs in the Conference or Community League to consider stepping up a division if issues out of their control could render them financially crippled?”
Sarries are in favour of bringing back promotion and relegation to domestic rugby, which has been outlawed in recent seasons, and they have petitioned league organisers to introduce a promotion v relegation play-off.
“No-one wants to see one club dominating at a lower league year in year out as they are obviously playing beneath their true competitive league,” added Basson.
“Similarly no-one enjoys seeing other clubs losing in one-sided matches. A relegation/promotion system of say, if the top two teams from the lower division played the bottom two from the upper division, perhaps could be a consideration and this is what we have proposed to the organisers.
“It may extend the playing season a little in a competition which is already quite short in comparison to other countries.”
Henderson though insists Sarries’ decision should not detract from the positivity emanating from Al Ghazal, and should not be seen as a negative, but as a step taken to secure the club’s future.
“We are revitalised as never before,” added a stoic Henderson.
“The knocks have not stopped coming this season either. The club and committee has been pushed already these recent weeks but we’ve pulled through and are as united as ever.
“Rugby clubs exist for rugby players. It is the players who Saracens will always support to the best of our ability and do whatever we can to give them the opportunity for success on and off the pitch.”
As well as the senior men’s team, Saracens have a growing and strengthening ladies team. Being located so close to such major expat areas like Al Raha Beach, Al Raha Gardens, Al Bandar, Al Muneera, Al Zeina, Al Reef, Khalifia City A and B and Shakhbout, Sarries hope to offer the enjoyment of being part of a club to everyone.
Beverages and a barbecue are readily available pitchside for all events: something no other club can offer.
During the regular season Sarries will train every Monday and Wednesday night from 19:00-20:30. Interested players or social members can visit the website at www.adsaracens.com or email [email protected] for more information.
Underdogs Castres Olympique, who came from nowhere to win last season’s Top 14, have started this term just as they finished the previous with a hard fought 25-20 win over Montpellier in the grand final replay.
Castres, who come from the little-known region of Occitania in the south of France, stunned the rugby world when they went on a giant killing run after just squeezing into last term’s Top 14 playoffs.
First they defeated Toulouse 23-11 in the qualifiers, then star-studded Racing 92 19-14 in the semi-finals before outplaying heavily favoured billionaire club Montpellier in the final 29-13.
They are a team of rejects, unknowns and journeyman who believe simply in working hard for each other – like a French version of the Exeter Chiefs.
Almost to prove this fact, their tries in last year’s final were scored by 30-year-old fullback Julien Dumora and former Greater Sydney Rams lock Steve Mafi. Their real match winner however is the accurate boot of 32-year-old Pumas outcast, fly-half Benjamín Urdapilleta.
Olympique play out of the humble Stade Pierre Fabre, the smallest ground in the Top 14 seating just 12,500 and named after the late pharmaceutical magnate who owned Castres from 1988 until his death in 2013.
The mastermind behind this “little-club-done-good story” is the eccentric 52-year-old coach Christophe Urios, who first came to Castres to work in Pierre Fabre’s laboratories as coordinator of new cosmetic products.
Urios loved it until the day in 1996, when he was told he would have to become a professional player.
Dream come true right? Wrong. He was so bored with just two hours training a day he decided to study to become a coach.
He started his coaching career at Bourgoin before moving on to Oyonnax who he took from the lowly Pro D2 to the heights of the Top 14 over “eight incredible years”, before returning to Castres.
He is now being spoken of as the next coach of the France national team after Jacques Brunel.
Not surprisingly Urios’ approach is down to hard work.
“I’m here from morning till night, seven days a week, with my staff,” he explains. “I do not have a method, I have a state of mind. I could train on the moon.”
“I am different from others, against the grain of everything. But in this rugby that goes in all directions, I feel that it was good that Castres is champion of France.”
It was more of the same on the opening weekend of the new season as recent signing 32-year-old fullback Scott Spedding crossed for a double, and 37-year-old Uruguayan international lock Rodrigo Capo Ortega picked up a third.
Urdapilleta picked up his usual 10 points (two conversion and two penalties) and Vern Cotter’s bevy of Springboks, All Blacks and current French internationals was put to the sword again.
It only increased the frustration levels of Montpellier’s owner – Syrian-born billionaire Mohed Altrad. It seems money can’t always buy what simple hard work delivers.
The 29-year-old announced last month that he was hanging up his boots after failing to overcome neck and knee injuries.
Flanker Warburton, who led the Lions on successful tours to Australia in 2013 and New Zealand last summer, had not played since the drawn third All Blacks Test 12 months ago and could not regain his fitness during pre-season training with Cardiff Blues.
“I remember saying to the physio, ‘I’m fine but when I tackle or run, that’s when I get pain,'” Warburton told the Times. “He was like, ‘That is a bit of a problem doing what you do.’ ”
“When I was doing overhead press in the gym, I was still getting nervy symptoms, pain in my neck, and I hadn’t even done any contact work. After a week I was coming home from training and I was having joint pain – you can deal with muscle soreness but this was different.
“I didn’t want to be that player who was just hanging on, holding a pad. If I couldn’t get to the heights I wanted to, I’d rather just call it a day.
“If I couldn’t get to an international standard, I was not going to do it and I could tell I wasn’t going to make that after about a week’s training. My body just couldn’t cope with the volume of running anymore.”
Warburton admits that next year’s World Cup in Japan made his decision to quit more difficult.
“We finished our session and we were in a huddle. Some of the senior players and coaches were talking and I remember not being as focused as I should have been, looking at the grass,” he added.
“I was just thinking, ‘This is it. I have found that session so hard, what with all the changing of direction. My knees are so sore’. I just thought, ‘I am never going to get through 14 months to get to the World Cup’.”