Two of the West Asia Championship’s best forward packs will go toe to toe at Al Ghazal on Friday as Abu Dhabi Saracens host Dubai Hurricanes.
Resurgent Sarries will be looking to leapfrog their opponents in the table with victory, while Canes will hope to continue their good progress in the competition and keep the pressure on the top sides.
It is Sarries’ final home game of the season and captain Jaen Botes admits his side are keen to sign off on a high.
“It’s our last game at home for the season and I’m sure the boys will be up for a good game,” said the Number 8.
“We have worked hard over the last couple of weeks on correcting key areas of our game and it looks positive leading into Friday.”
The South African is looking forward to welcoming back compatriot Lehan Koekemoer to the side, having not been available so far in 2016, while he is also relishing a powerful battle of front with Canes’ pack.
“We welcome back Lehan in the second row, he was a massive loss for us after Christmas due to visa issues but he’s finally back now and I’m sure his presence on the field will be a massive asset,” he said.
“We know they have a strong pack and we know we will have to work hard if we want to come away with a win. It will be a dog fight up front but it’s something we’re looking forward to.”
Prop and joint head coach Craig Nutt is missing but otherwise Sarries are nearly at full strength.
Canes hooker Chris Gregory is also looking forward to a physical encounter.
“We’re looking forward to stepping up the intensity and opening up and playing an expansive game,” he said.
“The club is in good spirits. The forwards have been working well together recently and have bags of energy with the backs ready to hit the hard lines and make breaks.
“Sarries will always have the home advantage but we’re confident in our defence and know we have the fire power in attack.”
Skipper Daniel Perry said he is proud of his side collecting seven bonus points in the competition and hopes a sixth try-scoring bonus point in seven games can be achieved in the capital.
“The mood is good after the Al Ain win and, as a team I think we’ve performed well in the West Asia Championship,” said Perry.
“I think we have got a try bonus in every game bar the Dragons hiccup so the lads are full of confidence. We were a sloppy in the last 10 away at Sarries last time but we know how hard it will be going up there and want to right the wrongs of the last fixture.”
Bahrain vs Al Ain Amblers
The mood in the Al Ain Amblers camp has been lifted in recent weeks and the club are looking to build on that feel-good atmosphere as they head west to Bahrain on Friday.
Amblers won for the first time in nearly a year against Muscat two weeks ago and even though they lost to Dubai Hurricanes last week, the 25-22 result could have gone either way.
“The mood is good, the guys are excited about going to Bahrain. Except for two starting line-up players (visa issues), we’re sending a full squad over,” said Amblers director of rugby, Rocco de Bruyn.
“We feel our strongest side in many weeks,” added chairman Sean Emmett.
“Most of our players are available and healthy for Bahrain.”
The modd is similarly serene in Bahrain, who put two disappointing defeats behind them with a 50-10 win against Muscat last time out.
“The win against Muscat has got us back on track but we know that we have to put in a performance against Al Ain,” said injured skipper Adam Wallace.
“We assume they’ll be traveling strong and we know they can score tries. We believe we have one of the best defences in the league and with our structure really starting to take shape we are confident going into the fixture that we can get what we need.”
Dubai Exiles return to the scene of their only defeat this season knowing that a win against Abu Dhabi Harlequins will secure the West Asia Championship title.
Barry Dwyer’s try in the last seconds at Zayed Sport City on October 16 in a pulsating game of rugby gave Quins a 22-18 win in the UAE Premiership, but Exiles have since embarked on a nine-game winning run across both competitions that has lasted four-and-a-half months.
Jacques Benade’s side hold a fivepoint advantage at the top of the table from second-placed Quins and victory in the capital on Friday will see Exiles become West Asia champions with a game to go.
Despite standing on the cusp of glory, prop Kristian Stinson says it’s important for Exiles to retain their focus.
“As cliched as it sounds it’s just another game for us,” said the Northern Irishman. “It’s a very dangerous thing to play the occasion rather than the game and this is something we are very mindful of, so we will train like we have every other week, focus and stick to our normal routine.”
Stinson does, however, feel lifting the championship would be fitting for a club celebrating it’s 50th year.
“Of course, from a romantic side it’s a great story for UAE rugby as a whole, historically the two biggest and most successful clubs going at it for bragging rights and poignantly for us as we head into our 50th year as a club,” he added.
“Given where we have been as a club in the last five years it’s great to just be in the mix again and the coaching team and the players deserve a lot of plaudits for that.
“However, all of that is just is just background noise to us, we’re just playing another 80 minutes of rugby and aiming to come out on top against a really solid team that we have a lot of respect for and who have consistently shown why they are always the favorites in tournaments and games such as these.”
Quins chances of West Asia glory were dealt a body blow two weeks ago when they were beaten 25-10 in the Abu Dhabi derby by Saracens, but they bounced back in style with a tremendous 44-25 win in Doha, and head coach Mike McFarlane knows the title race is far from run.
“We really can’t wait to play them,” he said. “Like last weekend it will be two good teams going head to head, looking to play quick, running rugby. It’s another game for us. We set ourselves high standards no matter the game, no matter the opposition and we always look to play positive rugby.”
After defeat to Sarries, captain Phil Abraham was delighted with how his men responded last week.
“We’re very excited, we felt like we were clicking as a team last week and there is still room for improvement and there are more guys available this week. It’s good to have everyone ready,” said the prop.
The announcement of former England rugby union and New Zealand rugby league star Henry Paul as Jebel Ali head coach will put the club right back at the forefront of domestic rugby in the UAE next season, claims Dragons flanker Niall Statham.
Jebel Ali confirmed on Tuesday that 42-year-old ex-dual code star Paul will take over as head coach and club ambassador from July 1.
The sensational news comes as a welcome shot in the arm for a club that has fallen on hard times in the last 18 months following back-to-back treble-winning campaigns in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
Dragons are currently sixth in the West Asia Championship and full 15 points adrift of league leaders Dubai Exiles.
“It’s certainly a statement of intent and really exciting news,” said Statham, who has just returned to the club following his exploits with the UAE sevens team in the Asia Rugby Development Sevens Series.
“There’s been a steady increase in coaching standards in the UAE in recent years, for example (former Munster and Newcastle Falcons player) Jeremy Manning becoming player-coach at Abu Dhabi Harlequins was a big step, but no-one has done something of this magnitude.
“I think it’s another step towards the game becoming professional over here and the club is starting to reap the rewards of a very good set-up. Hopefully this is the first step to propelling us back to the forefront of rugby in the UAE.
“It gives us impetus for the rest of the season. With us slipping out of title contention, this will give us a real shot of adrenaline and will hopefully see us back fighting for silverware next season. That’s always been the aim since we slipped off the pace.”
Paul excelled during a decorated rugby league career with Wigan Warriors, Bradford Bulls and New Zealand before switching to union, where he played club rugby for Gloucester and Harlequins, as well as winning six England caps after qualifying for the country.
He also enjoyed great success with the England sevens side, winning the Dubai Sevens title in 2005.
Jebel Ali’s players discovered the news on Tuesday via email, although Dragons director of rugby Paul Hart revealed discussions with Paul have been ongoing for the last year-and-a-half, with former player-coach Sean Crombie also instrumental in brokering a deal.
“We’re delighted and very excited to have captured his services,” said Hart.
“Henry’s fiancee is a lawyer in Dubai and he has been keen to move over here, but he had originally decided to continue coaching in the UK.”
Henry’s role at Dragons will also include driving the mini and youth section, developing current players and recruiting new talent to the club.
“The aim under Henry is to develop and become more organised as a club while retaining the Dragons ethos,” added Hart.