Dubai Exiles have signaled their intent ahead of the new season by snapping up powerhouse Number 8 Jaen Botes from Abu Dhabi Saracens.
The gargantuan South African back-row forward has returned to the club where he spent his childhood, having played mini and youth rugby with Exiles before heading to the UK for university.
Since returning to the UAE in 2014, Botes, 27, has played the last three seasons with Sarries, winning the 2015 West Asia Championship, although he was ineligible for the final in Doha.
He has since gone on to make his UAE debut and become an integral part of national team set-up.
Exiles are in need of an injection of fresh blood after following up their 2015/16 West Asia and UAE Premiership double-winning campaign with a woeful 2016/17. And chairman Mike Wolff is delighted with the acquisition of the fiery and physical Botes.
“I am delighted that Jaen is returning to the Exiles,” Wolff said of Botes, who is relocating to Dubai for work.
“He actually played with us as a mini and youth player many years ago, and went on to achieve great things with his rugby outside the UAE and of course more recently with Abu Dhabi Saracens and the UAE national team.
“We are thrilled to have him joining our men’s squad for next season. He is a formidable leader on the pitch and he will bring passion, dedication and no little physicality to the team.”
Exiles have been busy in the early part of the summer, with former Munster back and one-time Ireland international Denis Hurley brought in as defence coach.
After ceding superiority to Abu Dhabi Harlequins last season, Exiles will be keen to return to challenging for honours in 2017/18.
And Wolff has confidence Botes’ addition will see them return to prominence.
“We continue to build on the solid platform established by Jacques (Benade, director of rugby) and the men’s section after winning the double two seasons ago,” added Wolff.
“Whilst last season didn’t go as well as we wished after Jacques’ barnstorming first year in charge, we remain on a very positive trajectory.
“As well as bringing former Munster and Ireland player Denis Hurley in, we also have some more strong additions to the squad to be announced shortly. In a really competitive UAE Premiership and Conference set-up we are excited and confident about what next season might bring.”
Fellow South African Benade is looking forward to Botes adding more steel to Exiles’ pack.
Craig Nutt insists he did not lead a mass player exodus from Abu Dhabi Saracens and that his move to cross city rivals Harlequins is a decision he took to benefit himself.
The powerful Welsh prop’s departure from Al Ghazal after three seasons was announced by Sarries chairman Jay Danielson last week, the Australian upset that a number of team-mates seemed to use it also as an opportunity to leave.
But Nutt, who featured in 16 games in his debut 2014/15 season in the Emirates while also travelling home each week to fulfill a promise to play for home-town team Bargoed, feels the time was right to make the move.
“It’s about a change. I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into Saracens the last three years and for me it’s the right time for a change,” said Nutt, who also stepped up to lead the team along with Stephen Hamilton in a player-coach role in 2015/16 after head coach Ali Thompson stepped down following West Asia Championship success.
“I wasn’t enjoying my rugby and I have to get back to that.”
Fellow prop Murray Reason, centres Sean Stevens and Garth van Niekirk and fly-half/full-back Matt Hutchings are also reported to be heading to Quins.
But Nutt feels it’s ridiculous to suggest he would trigger a flurry of departures, especially when getting into a side that won every trophy on offer last season will be a monumental task.
“They’ve just come off winning five trophies. I’m not expecting to walk straight into their team,” added the 32-year-old.
“At the end of the day you have to have confidence in yourself to push yourself to get into that squad. I’m not guaranteed to start by any stretch of the imagination. If I have to play in the second team for the first few weeks then so be it.
“I have confidence in my ability to know I can push to get into the first team. It’s fine to start off at the bottom, it’s not an issue. I don’t mind putting graft in as long as I’m enjoying myself, and I wasn’t. When you get to that stage it’s difficult.
“It’s all well and good to say you can do training on your own but I play team sport to be among people. I’m not motivated enough to be in a gym on my own, I need like-minded people around me.
“Having to push yourself to get into the team is what I need, not turning up on the weekend. That is why I moved. I needed more people in training. I’m used to only have two weeks off before pre-season. Here it’s four months then four weeks of pre-season before playing.”
Nutt passes the three-year threshold to be eligible for residency next season and he admits making the UAE squad for next May’s Asia Rugby Championship was also at the forefront of his thinking.
He said: “No-one’s got a right to play for the UAE. I want to be in the best possible position to push to get into the UAE squad. That’s my overall goal.
“I want to be training until the start of the season and want to be back in the condition I was in when I arrived. Looking at the structures in place at Quins, that’s the best possible place for me to be.”
Quins were back in pre-season this week, holding an welcome back session at Zayed Sports City on Sunday, and Nutt said his first impressions were impressive.
“It was very good, professional. Close to what I’m used to in Wales. The Quins set-up, I’ve been very impressed with. I’ve had emails for the last two weeks.”
Nutt’s departure from Sarries has left a bitter taste at Al Ghazal. But after initial uproar, Nutt revealed tempers cooled after a phone call from chairman Danielson.
“I spoke to Jay. I sat Jay down four months ago and told him I was leaving. So he rung me and apologised. For him to ring up and apologise was a big thing,” he said.
“I moved for different reasons. I moved to benefit myself, not anyone else. It wasn’t like I was leading an exodus. I’ve been involved with running that club for the last three years. They were a big part of who I’ve been here for three years.
“I wish them all the best, but it was time for me to move on. I didn’t want it to finish on bad terms. Abu Dhabi’s far too small to be on bad terms, we all drink and eat in same places.”
Dubai Exiles have pulled off an early summer coup by announcing that former Munster full-back Denis Hurley has joined the club as their defensive coach ahead of next season.
The 32-year-old was at 15 as the Irish side toppled Toulouse 16-13 to lift the 2008 Heineken Cup in Cardiff, but was released by the Irish province last May after an injury-plagued campaign as incoming director of rugby Rassie Erasmus shook things up at Thomand Park.
It severed a career-long association with the Red Army for Hurley, having come through Munster’s academy.
Exiles head coach Jacques Benade, who coached for many years in Northern Ireland at Ballymena, Malone and Dromore High School, revealed Hurley, capped once by Ireland in 2009, emailed the club last season looking for a job as his wife had received a job offer in the UAE.
“He’s got such a knowledge of the game and we think he will make a massive impact,” said South African Benade, who revealed Hurley actually attended a few games and led some training sessions last season.
“He’s already been to a few games and we let him coach a few sessions and the players really reacted to him. It’s a massive coup for us.
“To attract someone with such a rugby pedigree is a positive for any club.
“He came last December to The Sevens. We had an email from him saying he was looking for something to do. We replied saying we’d like to meet up with him. We had a good chat about whether it would be in a coaching or playing capacity.
“He was still playing two years ago at Munster so will bring something different. He will run the whole defensive set-up this year and will help with skill development. For me as senior coach and the players, it will be nice to have someone to come in and make a big difference.
“It’s a good stepping stone for him too. We agree a lot on how we want to do things, so we can’t wait.”
During a decade in the first team, Hurley, who played at full-back, wing and centre, made 166 appearances for Munster, scoring 16 tries, winning two Pro12 titles in 2009 and 2011. He earned his only cap against the USA in May 2009 and made Ireland’s 2012 Six Nations squad, but failed to make an appearance.
Exiles chairman Mike Wolff has plans for Hurley to help at grass roots level too, but Benade is hoping Hurley’s appointment will inject some much-needed life into Exiles after they fell from grace last season.
They followed their 2015/16 West Asia Championship and UAE Premiership double success with fifth-placed finishes in both versions as they won just nine of 20 games.
“Hopefully with Denis’ appointment we can get back on the winning track,” added Benade, the former Emerging Springbok fly-half, of a man who is believed to have been in talks with a number of other UAE clubs.
“It was all new first year and we had basic plan on how to play. But it’s hard to sustain that. It’s important to have different voices. You need specialised people. That’s what we lacked last year, a different approach.
“Me and Gareth (Venter, assistant coach) we definitely needed someone serious about coaching and with a rugby background. It was getting a bit too much so was important to bring someone in, especially someone with such a great background.
“I think the guys will react, they now have another coach to impress, not just me. He (Denis) already spotted a few areas where we can work on and he’s really keen. The players start afresh and will want to impress.”