The sign on the door of the number two changing room at Dubai Sports City read ‘Welcome DSC Eagles’, and UAE rugby’s newest club might well feel like they truly arrived after recording the first win in their history on Friday night.
True, it was only their second game, so it’s not as if they’ve been waiting years for an elusive triumph. But many critics probably expected Dubai Eagles to go their maiden season without tasting victory – especially after they had their wings clipped on their competitive debut a week ago, thrashed 85-8 by Dubai Exiles.
Not captain Conor Coakley though, who got out of bed on the morning of the game believing his side were going to win. The Irishman’s eyes danced as he savoured his prediction coming true at the final whistle.
“Honestly, no,” said the flanker when asked if Eagles’ maiden win had come sooner than expected. It might not have been anticipated at all in their debut campaign by some within the club.
“I thought we’d get a win this season. After what I’ve seen over the last few weeks at training, the guys have a belief in what we’re doing. I got up this morning and I felt it. ‘Yeah, we’re gonna win’. And we’ll have more.
“It was gritty. It was tough up front. They have a very strong pack and it was physical, there was a lot of dog work. And I haven’t played 80 minutes of rugby in about two years, so I’m feeling it now.”
Victory for either side on Friday would have been hugely significant. Eagles were formed less than three months ago and held their first training session a little over six weeks ago – with seven attendees.
Sarries, meanwhile, may be a little older, they were formed in 2011. But it’s been a trying summer with the loss of their home ground. They don’t actually have a head coach either after Winston Cowie stepped down in the summer.
The New Zealander hasn’t defected to another club though, like many stars from previous years. He has work and family commitments keeping him busy but he will still feature as a player.
And the Kiwi, who plunged over the whitewash for Sarries’ only try, believes better is to come for a side which is determined to stay alive this season.
“It’s a game we should have won,” said Cowie, who earned his first UAE cap earlier this year.
“It was scrappy and I think the result shows we’re lacking a little bit of depth. But we had 15 players on the pitch and a full bench, we’ve got two teams playing this season. We’ve got a few boys who’ve put in a huge recruitment drive this summer and have really kept the club together.
“Perhaps we’re not there yet on the performances but we’ve got a bunch of guys here who enjoy playing rugby and like to play for each other, and hopefully the results will come.”
Although Sarries led a scrappy encounter just 3-0 at the break, it looked as if the result would have been theirs. Their scrum was dominant and centre Stephen Hamilton was clinical from the tee while Eagles’ kicker Sean Carey was wasteful when the opportunities came his way – the Irishman fluffed three attempts to level the scores.
Head coach Pat Benson must have delivered an inspiring team talk at the interval though as Eagles took flight as soon as the whistle went to signal the restart.
Just 26 seconds of the second period had passed before the game’s first try arrived – full-back Jamie Williams’ blistering run creating the space and Carey atoned for his earlier errors as he was on the shoulder to take the killer pass that sent him scurrying over for the opening try.
He converted from right in front to make it 7-3. There was barely time to blink before Eagles doubled their lead. And the same two combined to bamboozle Sarries. Williams again started the attack and cut through the defence before Carey was in the right place at the right time to once again go under the sticks. It was 14-3 and Eagles were beginning to flow forward with confidence.
But Sarries weathered the storm and reduced the gap when Cowie crashed over after a bout of pressure – Hamilton just wide with the conversion attempt.
Eagles were beginning to wilt in the humid conditions but the heat was also causing the visitors difficulties, with the ball being dropped like a bar of soap.
Carey and Hamilton exchanged penalties and Sarries’ chances of a comeback were dealt a blow when their influential director of rugby was harshly sin-binned for a high tackle.
Still, they had chances to find a killer score, but their attacks were thwarted by dropped passes or cheap penalties given away.
With a scrum awarded to Eagles near the Sarries line with the last play of the game signaled, scrum-half Josh Ives calmly fed the ball into the now dominant Eagles forwards and then passed to Tom Bright who kicked the ball into touch for a famous victory this fledgling Eagles family won’t forget in a hurry.
With the local rugby season upon us we have the lowdown on each team aiming to compete for the West Asia Premiership title.
From the key players to our predictions for the year, we have you covered.
Who do you think will win?
Coach: Louie Tonkin
Home ground: Bahrain RFC
Captain: Adam Wallace
Key player: Elliot Behan
Last season: West Asia Premiership 3rd, West Asia Championship 2nd
Sport360° prediction: Made great progress under Tonkin in his debut campaign and, with new faces arriving and a lot of injured stars returning to the ranks, expect them to be a major contender for trophies
UAE Premiership: N/A
West Asia Premiership: 2nd
Dubai Sevens: Quarter-finals
Coach: Henry Paul
Home ground: JACOE
Captain: Ross Samson
Key player: Matt Henry
Last season: West Asia Premiership 4th, UAE Premiership 2nd
Sport3600 prediction: Came on leaps and bounds last season under Paul and are set to make more strides, with exciting signings said to have arrived. Fell short of silverware last season but 2017/18 could be different.
UAE Premiership: 2nd
West Asia Premiership: 3rd
Dubai Sevens: Final
Coach: Pat Benson
Home ground: Dubai Sports City
Captain: Conor Coakley
Key player: Sean Carey
Last season: N/A
Sport3600 prediction: The new boys are an unknown quantity but it will surely be a season of struggle for them, with their opponents well ahead. Being competitive and earning a handful of wins would be seen as a good campaign for the debutants.
UAE Premiership: 6th
West Asia Premiership: 7th
Dubai Sevens: Pool stages
Coach: Jacques Benade
Home ground: The Sevens
Key player: Durandt Gerber
Last season: West Asia Premiership 5th, UAE Premiership 4th
Sport3600 prediction: Have recruited well over the summer and will be hard-pressed to be as bad as they were last season. Head coach Benade will be upset if they don’t win at least one trophy from the four on offer.
UAE Premiership: 1st
West Asia Premiership: 4th
Dubai Sevens: Semi-finals
Coach: Mike McFarlane
Home ground: Zayed Sports City
Captain: Ben Bolger
Key player: Luke Stevenson
Last season: West Asia Premiership 1st, UAE Premiership 1st, Dubai Sevens winners
Sport3600 prediction: Where do they go after they won everything last year? Surely they can’t be as untouchable as last season. Have lost some key players but undoubtedly remain the team to beat.
UAE Premiership: 3rd
West Asia Premiership: 1st
Dubai Sevens: Winners
Coach: Mike Wernham
Home ground: The Sevens
Captain: Dave Knight
Key player: Josh Elliot
Last season: West Asia Premiership 6th, UAE Premiership 5th
Sport3600 prediction: A perennial struggler for the last two seasons but finally settled under Wernham, who has added structure and confidence. Have their work cut out but are an outside bet for a trophy
UAE Premiership: 4th
West Asia Premiership: 5th
Dubai Sevens: Semi-finals
Home ground: N/A
Captain : Johnny Taylor
Key player: Stephen Hamilton
Last season: West Asia Premiership 7th, UAE Premiership 6th
Sport3600 prediction: It’s been a tumultuous summer for Sarries, but vibes coming from within the club are refreshingly positive. They won’t trouble the top teams but will be happy to be competitive
UAE Premiership: 5th
West Asia Premiership: 6th
Dubai Sevens: Quarter-finals
It might have been a summer of struggle for the UAE’s rugby teams, but Jebel Ali Dragons are firing on all cylinders as they get set for a special season celebrating their 25th year.
They appointed rugby league and union icon Henry Paul as head coach a year ago and he proved to be Dragons’ talisman as the club returned to something approaching prominence in 2016/17 after a few seasons chained and in the dark.
Fellow clubs are struggling; Dubai Wasps were forced to fold due to falling player numbers and loss of sponsors, giants Abu Dhabi Harlequins are struggling to pay pitch fees and for flights to defend their Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title while Dubai Sharks and Arabian Knights have, as yet, nowhere to play. Dragons, meanwhile, are flickering back into life, signing a seven figure, five-year contract extension with sponsors Hesco.
Yet, not so long ago, things weren’t looking so bright. In 2000, just eight years after the club was established, they almost folded – with player numbers down to single figures.
Former Dragons player coach Paul Austin’s villa was the venue for an emergency summit, a rallying call to arms where all club members were called upon to attend in order to thrash out the club’s very existence. Four people turned up.
“Not many people will know that. With training numbers in single figures many wanted the club to fold,” remembers Austin, a Dragon from 1995 to 2007. “At a guess I think the four were Andy Jones, Mike Lalor, Jon Ombler and myself. We decided that we had to move to Division 1 from Division 2 to continue to exist, but with no sponsors or players the future didn’t look bright.”
The foursome’s brilliant solution to secure the future of the club they loved? Lie to the game’s governing body of course, at that time the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union.
“We decided to lie and claim we had 30 players and a large sponsorship deal in the works and hope they went for it,” added Austin. “Luckily they did and we four were promoted to Division 1 for the new season. First up, Abu Dhabi Bats, the league champions.
“Just in the manner I was recruited, we headed to bars and found every ex-rugby player or big-ish bloke we could and got 16 for the Friday game. Amazingly, we drew 3-3 and from there the new era of the Dragons started.”
It’s characters like Austin, Welshman Jones, Lalor and Ombler, club founders John Fish and a man simply referred to as ‘Blaster’, ex-treasurer Keith Byrne, former captain Paul Smith, manager Dave Osseman, Roy Green, who was a chairman who moonlighted as a photographer, Tim Wood, another former chairman, and extreasurer Matt ‘Fester’ Seale that kept Dragons together during their formative years.
They sound like a merry band of loveable rogues, a rag-tag bunch who in the early years were renowned more for their post-game antics and love of the social scene as opposed to their prowess on the field. But those early beginnings forged bonds and spirit. Camaraderie and long-lasting friendships that still exist today and are the foundations the club has built its reputation on.
When Neil ‘Dutchy’ Ver Weij arrived in the UAE in late 1992, his large frame led to Dubai Exiles stalwart Gary Harris inviting him down to training. But when the Dutchman, a talented goalkeeper in his youth, explained to club elders that he had no rugby pedigree, he was told bluntly ‘this is not the club for you’. At that time, Osseman approached Dutchy and pointed to another pitch at Al Awir where Dragons were practicing.
They’d only just formed a proper club earlier that year, while Exiles, the Emirates’ oldest club, were then celebrating their 25th year.
The name Dragons comes from the pub where the club was created by Fish and Blaster – the George & Dragon, in Bur Dubai. Technically, Jebel Ali Dragons are only seven years old as Jebel Ali Resorts & Hotels came on board in 2010 to offer the club its first home ground at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence.<
“We’d go to the George and Dragon on a Tuesday, play some darts and pool. It was a Dragons pub. You knew you’d always bump into some Dragons boys,” said 55-year-old Ver Weij, who has been with the club almost since the beginning.
A footballer by trade who had lived in Iraq and Saudi Arabia prior to his arrival in the UAE, he was very much an outsider. But Dragons has long been a halfway house for players of all ability.
“I grew up in Dubai but was living in Egypt in the early 1990s and only moved back to Dubai in ‘95 to work,” added Austin, 46. “I had not even heard of the Dragons and had planned to attend Exiles training.
Soon after returning to Dubai I headed to the Alamo Bar on a Friday night when I was approached by a complete stranger who said ‘you look like you play rugby’. ‘I do’,
I replied. ‘Well we’ve got a game tomorrow night against Sharjah and you’re in the starting team’, replied the stranger.
“I tried to talk myself out of it but was told I’d be picked up and taken to the game and had no choice in the matter. The next day I made my debut for the Dragons, was named man of the match and from there started 10 plus years at the Dragons including most as captain and three unbeaten years.”
The likes of Fester, Blaster and Austin may have left. But there is plenty of new blood keeping the club stocked with characters who are passionate about maintaining the Dragons tradition.
Dutchy, a long-time coach of Dragons’ third team, was asked by Paul and the players to step up to become first team manager for the new season earlier this summer with local boy Jonny MacDonald taking charge of Dragons 2nds. Stuart Quinn is the club’s new chairman.
Paul Hart is another club legend, still a feature for the first team and the UAE despite approaching his 40th birthday.
His First Resort Global Recruitment firm has played its part in attracting players to the club.
These current stalwarts and others are aiming to help Dragons replicate past successes and scale even greater heights, all the while hoping another emergency meeting akin to the one in Austin’s villa 17 years ago isn’t needed.
“With Dragons we never say no. We always welcome people, everybody’s welcome no matter what level you are,” said Ver Weij, reflecting on that first training session quarter of a century ago.
“We make you feel part of the club. Even if you don’t want to play you can be part of the social scene. It’s one big family. There’s been some great work done behind the scenes, by the likes of Tim Wood the ex-chairman and Mike Lewis. Those boys have kept it together.
“Others like treasurer Ben Pryor, Harty, Quinny, Peter Miller does all the sponsorship recruitment. Without them I don’t think we would still be here, don’t underestimate the work they do.”
Despite being part of the club for 25 years, there was a period in the late 90s and early 2000s where Dutchy stepped away as the playing side of the club became more serious and talented under Jones.
But he returned around six years ago and is now here to stay.
“Rugby is an amazing sport and there’s amazing guys here,” he said. “I want to be here another 10 years hopefully. The club is getting stronger. The steps the club has taken in 25 years is enormous.
“I look back sometimes with my wife and say to her ‘look what we’ve done’. We’ve got the new clubhouse, pitch, trophies are coming back. It’s just not like any other club. We’ve got the real Dragons family feeling coming back.”
DRAGONS’ TIMELINE 1992 Dubai Dragons are formed in the George & Dragon pub in Bur Dubai by John Fish and ‘Blaster’. 1992-2000 Play with Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Ain, Sharjah, Dubai Exiles, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar in the Gulf’s sole rugby league as well as appearing at the Dubai Sevens. 2000 Emergency meeting held to decide the future of the club. The four who turn up lie to the Arabian Gulf RFU, claiming to have 30 players and a sponsorship deal. Promotion is granted and the club move to Division 1. 2001/02 Enter the Gulf League, win their first match v Abu Dhabi, the eventual champions, and finish a creditable third. 2002/03 Win Gulf Cup, second in the league. 2003/04 Unbeaten season, winning Gulf League and Gulf Cup. In Cup final, the Dragons 2nds famously beat the Exiles 1sts. 2004/05 Retain Gulf League but lose Gulf Cup final. Win Dubai Sevens for the first time. 2005/06 Another unbeaten season in 15’s winning both Gulf League and Gulf Cup. 2006/07 Club enter a rebuilding stage with a number of senior players stepping down. Tim Wood becomes chairman. 2007/08 Second team win the Emirates League for the fourth consecutive season. 2008/09 Back-to-back Dubai Sevens winners. 2010 Finally have a place to call home as JA Resorts & Hotels agree to back them, officially become Jebel Ali Dragons. 2012-2014 The two most successful seasons in club history achieved as Dragons win back-to-back trebles of league, Gulf Top 6 and Dubai Sevens titles. 2014-2016 A few barren years, although former dual code rugby star Henry Paul is appointed head coach in the summer of 2016. Ex-Arabian Gulf international Jonny MacDonald, a long-time Dragons player, becomes his assistant. 2016/17 Under Paul, Dragons return to prominence, losing UAE Premiership final to Quins, claiming fourth in West Asia Premiership. 2017 Secure seven figure five-year sponsorship deal with Hesco. Complete ground development, including installing new floodlights, 3G pitch and a clubhouse.
Dubai Dragons are formed in the George & Dragon pub in Bur Dubai by John Fish and ‘Blaster’.
Play with Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Ain, Sharjah, Dubai Exiles, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar in the Gulf’s sole rugby league as well as appearing at the Dubai Sevens.
Emergency meeting held to decide the future of the club. The four who turn up lie to the Arabian Gulf RFU, claiming to have 30 players and a sponsorship deal. Promotion is granted and the club move to Division 1.
Enter the Gulf League, win their first match v Abu Dhabi, the eventual champions, and finish a creditable third.
Win Gulf Cup, second in the league.
Unbeaten season, winning Gulf League and Gulf Cup. In Cup final, the Dragons 2nds famously beat the Exiles 1sts.
Retain Gulf League but lose Gulf Cup final. Win Dubai Sevens for the first time.
Another unbeaten season in 15’s winning both Gulf League and Gulf Cup.
Club enter a rebuilding stage with a number of senior players stepping down. Tim Wood becomes chairman.
Second team win the Emirates League for the fourth consecutive season.
Back-to-back Dubai Sevens winners.
Finally have a place to call home as JA Resorts & Hotels agree to back them, officially become Jebel Ali Dragons.
The two most successful seasons in club history achieved as Dragons win back-to-back trebles of league, Gulf Top 6 and Dubai Sevens titles.
A few barren years, although former dual code rugby star Henry Paul is appointed head coach in the summer of 2016. Ex-Arabian Gulf international Jonny MacDonald, a long-time Dragons player, becomes his assistant.
Under Paul, Dragons return to prominence, losing UAE Premiership final to Quins, claiming fourth in West Asia Premiership.
Secure seven figure five-year sponsorship deal with Hesco. Complete ground development, including installing new floodlights, 3G pitch and a clubhouse.