After suffering a maiden defeat of the season in a heartbreaking 22-18 loss to Jebel Ali Dragons last week, Dubai Exiles face another massive challenge as they welcome another title contender in Bahrain to The Sevens tomorrow.
After two walloping wins over Dubai Eagles and Dubai Hurricanes to start the season, Jacques Benade’s men were brought back down to earth in an epic encounter against Dragons – one in which a late try for scrum-half Carel Thomas was initially awarded and then ruled out by the touch judge following a knock-on.
It burst Exiles’ early season bubble, but Benade remained positive after the game and insisted the performance of his team showed they can once again challenge for silverware in this season after a lackluster 2016/17.
“It wasn’t nice to lose last week but we’re very positive with what we’re doing. Dragons are a good side and I think they’ll be hard to beat. It was a good game,” said the South African.
“We knew we’d find out about ourselves and it would be our first test after two big scores. We defended well but gave them too much ball.
“Hopefully we’ll take a lot out of the game and believe we can compete back at this level. We’ll take more from this loss than the first two wins, definitely. It’s an eye-opener.
“We played well in parts and stuck together and I saw plenty of belief. They are a good side and so are Bahrain and they will be another big test this week. Abu Dhabi Harlequins will be competitive again too so to have four teams fighting makes for brilliant rugby.”
Bahrain thrashed Abu Dhabi Saracens 54-12 last week, having drawn 15-15 with quintuple-winning Quins in their opening fixture, and coach Louie Tonkin is wary of the wounded beast.
“We know it’s going to be a much bigger challenge than what we’ve faced so far,” said the Welshman.
“I saw footage against Dragons and they were really unlucky to lose last weekend so they’ll be highly motivated. They’ve made some big signings and strengthened their pack so they’ll be on their game.
“We did some good things last weekend and we’re looking to continue on those improvements. We have to get our set-piece right and give our backs good possession.
“We owe them one as we feel we should have got a result last season. We feel if we can get parity up front we can get a result.”
After several physical encounters with Sarries in recent seasons, Tonkin predicted another big test awaits and he insists his side are ready to “go to war”.
“If we can compete in the scrum, lineout, maul, breakdown I feel we have the players that can get us a victory,” he said.
“We have two weeks off after this so we’ll go hell for leather to try and get the win. It’s going to be a physical battle and we’re going to go there ready for war.”
Sharjah Wanderers will celebrate a mammoth milestone this weekend as the club hosts a festival of rugby to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
When a group of Halcrow and Tarmac engineers living in Sharjah when construction began on Sharjah Port and Sharjah Sewage Works in 1976, little did they know they were laying the foundations for a rugby club that would still exist nearly half a century later.
The engineers played for Dubai Exiles at the time but, concerned with the travelling distance, approached then Sharjah ruler, His Highness Sheikh Sultan, to ask if he would be willing to allocate land for a rugby pitch.
The Sheikh was very obliging and bestowed a plot of land that was flat enough for a pitch but could only be reached by 4×4 vehicles.
With the help of Tarmac providing materials and equipment and everyone pitching in, a small cub house was built and Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club was born.
“I can’t speak for other clubs, but Sharjah has always been a place that created everlasting friendships, from the guys who used to play in the 1980s that still meet up every summer to the more recent players,” said club chairman Shane Breen, who grew up in Sharjah.
“For a lot of people the Wanderers has given them life-time memories, some they wish they could forget, but mostly good ones.
“From a personal perspective, I grew up in Sharjah playing for the Wanderers and am one of many second generation players, which is something we’re very proud of.”
Although Breen revealed the exact birthday of the club changes depending on who you talk to, 1977 is the year it all came together. And a lot of players both old and new will descend on the clubhouse for a special day of celebration tomorrow.
Two rugby matches will be played, including the Sharjah Nomads v the current senior men’s team. A memorial game follows for Harry Adamson, a club legend who died earlier this year.
“This year is a big year for the Wanderers and while rugby is where it began, all the sports sections are flourishing which is fantastic to see,” added Breen.
“Friday will be a celebration of all the club’s sports sections, with exhibition games from football, Gaelic football and rugby. The first rugby game will be Sharjah Nomads v the current men’s team.
“The Nomads side is made up of guys who are still in the UAE but are either retired or now play for other clubs. After this there’ll be a memorial game for Harry Adamson.”
Although UAE rugby clubs have changed in various guises throughout their existence, Wanderers are lucky to have always had their current clubhouse to call home.
And Breen revealed some players from the very first days will be back in the clubhouse for tomorrow’s festivities.
“For us as the rugby club, we’ve made a big effort to get as many ex-players back as possible and it’s been amazing to see so many former players from as far back as the 70’s making to trip back to Sharjah for the weekend,” he said.
“Quite a few of these guys haven’t been back to the club since they left up 30 years ago so it’s going to be a great reunion. Whilst all our oldest rivals have been forced to more grounds over the years, we’ve been extremely fortunate to have the same ground since the beginning.
“The Wanderers may have changed a lot over the last 40 years but it’ll still feel the same to those guys returning.
“We’ve also got a table of former Dubai Exiles players coming down to show their support and meet some old friends, three of whom used to be my teachers.”
When Ed James, an Englishman who speaks with a slight Welsh valleys twang, reflects on his childhood spent growing up in the rugby-mad town of Bridgend – he admits it was tough.
But that’s nothing compared to how tough it must have been for the winger when he took the decision to retire, aged just 27, earlier this year following a sickening injury suffered while playing for Dubai Exiles in a West Asia Premiership fixture against Bahrain in January.
James doesn’t remember anything from the actual incident that saw him knocked out in a freak collision with an opponent who had been tackled by an Exiles team-mate. That is probably a blessing in disguise considering he discovered afterwards he almost choked on his own blood and medics at first found him unresponsive.
“The incident I have no recollection of,” said James. “From what I gather we were defending. There was a decoy runner coming down my inside man’s channel, my team-mate tackled the decoy runner who then collided with me. It was a heavy collision and we were both knocked out.”
Collisions are attritional aspects of rugby’s nature. But no-one in Saar was prepared for what this one would lead to.
James added: “In the contact I somehow severed an artery in my lip. There was blood gushing everywhere out of my mouth. And because I was knocked out I started swallowing my own blood and started having a seizure apparently. One thing after another.
“Luckily there was a doctor at the ground. She had to clear my airways but I’d stopped breathing. She’d taken a pulse and apparently I didn’t have one so she had to cut my shirt open and start resuscitating me.
“I had no idea this was going on, which was probably a good job. I couldn’t believe it when someone told me later on, it’s such a freak accident.
“I was conscious being stretchered off the pitch apparently but I don’t remember that. The first thing I remember was being in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and then passed out again and had another seizure.”
Despite not having to live with vivid recollections of the incident, hearing about what had happened would be enough to put anyone off playing again. But the Guilford-born James admits he would have wanted to return to action for Exiles – had it not been the opposite of what everyone else wanted.
“It wasn’t my decision,” added James, who admits mum Andrea and girlfriend Milli were influential in his decision.
“The doctors advised me to retire. After what happened my mum, girlfriend, sister, grandmother, it was pretty serious and they said they’d never forgive me for going back.
“As much as I’d love to go back I can’t be selfish, there’s other people to consider. I probably could if I really wanted to but I’m not even sure if Jacques (Benade, Exiles director of rugby) and the guys would want to see me back after witnessing what they saw. So, I’m happily retired.”
James is lucky his family actually live in the UAE so didn’t have to make emergency plans to fly out from the UK to see him after his injury. After living in Wales until he was 17, moving there after dad Mark accepted a job with British Airways in Cardiff, James’ family moved to the UAE where they’ve been for 10 years.
James works in marketing for Al Naboodah Group Enterprises in Al Awir, having attended the University of West England in Bristol after his parents made the move to the Gulf.
James does admit he has felt the itch to return with the local rugby season kicking off in the last month. But he’s grateful the game of rugby fosters a family atmosphere whether you’re playing or not.
“As much as everyone loves the game you can’t play forever,” he said.
“Even if you can’t play it’s still one big family so that bond won’t change whether I’m playing or not.
“It wasn’t too difficult at first but it’s been a bit hard with the season kicking back off and going down to watch the games has been a bit bittersweet. I’ve started to get the itch.
“I’m still playing some touch so I’m not completely lost from the game, but it is a bit tough not having the choice to go back there. But I’ve had plenty of good times in rugby so I’m happy with my lot.
“I miss the social side and the bonding, training during the week as it breaks the week up. The togetherness.”
As if to rubberstamp James’ point, he is quick to take a moment to thank Dr Amy Bowzaylo, the medic on duty that day in Bahrain, who he is in no doubt, the reason he is still here.
“She’s an amazing lady, I owe her a lot,” he said.
“I spent a week in Bahrain to recover and have more tests. They weren’t sure if I had brain damage so didn’t want to risk putting me in a high pressure aeroplane cabin.
“Once I was released from hospital Amy actually took me in to her house and looked after me for the week. After the hospital cleared me after two or three nights she took me in until I was medically cleared.
“I don’t know what laws there are with doctors and ambulances on standby at games. But if that doctor wasn’t there it could have been very different for me. I was very lucky and she saved my life.
“I think that should be mandatory because even though it was freak it could be different for someone else and the difference between living or dying.”
In addition to Dr Bowzaylo, James also has plenty of praise for how he’s been treated by Exiles during an arduous few months.
“The club were brilliant as soon as I got back. They covered all the costs and supported me anyway they could,” he said.
“I still speak to Jacques relatively regularly and everyone asks how I’m doing. I initially spoke to Jacques about doing a bit of coaching as he was keen to keep me involved, but right now I don’t have the time.”