A crucial period of the West Asia Premiership campaign begins on Friday as the fight for this season’s title begins to heat up.
Dragons welcome Bahrain to Jebel Ali for the first of three mouthwatering weeks of fixtures involving the trio of favourites for silverware, after which things should appear clearer.
At the moment just a point separates joint table toppers Jebel Ali Dragons and Bahrain on 21 points, with reigning champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins on 20 in third, all sides having played five games.
All three face one another in the coming chaos, with fourth-placed Dubai Exiles – seven points adrift of Quins and buoyed by their Dubai Sevens success – looking to capitalise on any mistakes those above them should make in the hopes of making it a four-way tussle for the trophy.
Dragons coach Henry Paul is glad his side have the advantage of playing at home, although the former dual code international admits that won’t count for much if his team don’t show up against Bahrain.
“The boys are keen to get back to it, it’s not been ideal training with lots of guys away still from the holidays, but I suppose it’ll be the same for everyone,” said Paul, who feels that the destination of the title will still go down to the end of the season.
“It is an important game in terms of league position and I’m hoping home field advantage sways it but we’ve got to turn up too and play smart, at times vs Canes (Dragons won 30-13 before Christmas) we were guilty of giving away cheap field position, plus Mike’s (Wernham, Canes coach) team played well early on.
“Games come thick and fast now though it’ll probably go right to the final game of the season to decide the West Asia champion.”
Dragons, like Bahrain, have been back on the paddock for two weeks, and skipper Ross Samson knows the importance of starting 2018 off right.
“We’re excited to play this weekend after a decent break. We had last week and this week to run off the Christmas turkey,” joked the Scotsman.
“It’s definitely a big game for us as we haven’t had the best run against them in recent times but I think we have improved a lot so it’s all to play for. We know they’ll be physical and not make too many mistakes so we just need to be accurate and take our chances when we get them.”
Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin is aware of the task facing his side, but he can’t wait for the game.
“We haven’t played since December 15 so we’re excited to be back,” said the Welshman.
“We’ve been back for two weeks and the boys are working really hard and are eager to play. It’s a huge three weeks in the league, we play Dragons this week, Dragons play Quins the week after and then the week after that we play Quins, so it’s huge.”
Despite the tendency to keep one eye on the future fixtures, Tonkin is adamant 100 per cent focus is on nothing but Dragons this weekend.
“We’re focusing on ourselves and this game,” he added.
“We have some boys back from injury and are bringing a good squad. We’re confident if we can do the basics well and get our game going we’re good enough to win there, but we know it’s going to be a huge task.
“We’ve done some work on them and we know how talented they are. They’ve got some new threats to last year and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
He’s battled through two years of injury hell, but Chris Marshall is now back playing rugby and he plans to pick right back up from where he started two years ago – and that’s representing the UAE.
The 27-year-old winger/centre has already earned sevens caps for his adopted country and was targeting a call-up to the UAE 15s squad when disaster struck in September 2015.
In the process of scoring a try for Abu Dhabi Harlequins in a see-saw battle with fierce rivals Dubai Exiles, Marshall fell awkwardly and dislocated his shoulder.
It was right at the very beginning of season. Little did he know that would be the start of a nightmare two years healing on the sidelines as comeback after comeback stalled – dashing his dreams of being selected for the 2016 Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) series.
In the midst of the last 24 months, both Quins and his adopted homeland have been moving on without him, and at a breakneck pace too.
Quins won the quintuple last term while the UAE have moved up to Division I of the ARC – Asia Rugby’s second tier.
Marshall returned at the start of the season, and he’s determined to make up for lost time.
“I want to be part of that 15s squad, 100 per cent,” said the Newcastle native, who works for rugby equipment manufacturers Kukri, and has been in the Emirates for five years.
“I’ve been around the sevens and might have been involved (in 15s) had I not got injured right at the start of the 2015 season. That’s my goal now to try and get back involved.
“A lot of the boys now see the UAE as a genuine goal, they want to be involved. Ben (Bolger) and Luke (Stevenson) really enjoyed it this year and making close bonds with the Dragons and Hurricanes and other boys, and I was really jealous I missed out on that.
“I loved it when I was involved, so it’s another thing I’m aiming for.”
When Marshall first arrived in the desert, playing for the national team wasn’t as sought after or as competitive as it has become under performance manager Apollo Perelini.
So Marshall is under no illusion he has his work cut out, especially having been out of the picture for so long. He added: “There’s some very good players from other clubs there now. No-one’s guaranteed a place. There’s genuine depth, no-one can say ‘oh, I might play for the UAE this year’. You have to really fight for it and show form in the league.”
Although he’s keen to put himself in the picture for the UAE by the time the 2018 ARC rolls around next May, Marshall is happy first and foremost to be back to offer some stability to his club – who lost a lot of stars over the summer.
Star centres Brian Geraghty and Willie Umu left, which is where Marshall has found himself filling a void as he eases back into the fold this season.
And being one of the more senior and long-serving Quins players in a new-look team for 2017/18, Marshall was eager to step up to the plate.
“I was very conscious we lost two or three really big players from last year, Willie and Brian,” added Marshall.
“I thought ‘I’ve got to step up’ as a Quins veteran, and seeing what those guys brought, that was where I set my goals. To do the things they did. Fill their shoes. They set the standard so I thought I’m going to have to pull my socks up and get stuck in.”
Quins have started the defence of their West Asia Premiership title strongly, sitting in third with an unbeaten record, just a point off joint leaders Bahrain and Jebel Ali Dragons.
They suffered a blow as they lost to Dubai Exiles in the semi-finals at this month’s Dubai Sevens, who went on to win and deny Quins a fourth straight Gulf Men’s League crown.
But Marshall, who’s family now live in the Lake District, is hoping to both he can the club can still make a big splash when the Premiership returns in the new year.
“I’m loving every minute. My rugby at the moment, I’m enjoying it more than I ever have,” said Marshall, who revealed he never toyed with the idea of quitting the game.
“You appreciate that any game could be your last, you don’t know what’s coming next. I’m playing with a smile on my face and trying to really enjoy it.
“I had a set-back three or four times trying to come back. The surgery and rehab is six months, I got that done. Then it was just getting back to playing. It takes a long time getting your confidence back and the fitness up. I wanted to hit the ground running this year.
“Being away from it makes you miss it so much. All I wanted to do was get back to it. Because when you’re not in it (the team) it’s a different place. That social group and being with the boys, there’s nothing like it.
“But even being amongst it, it’s not the same as playing. Being part of the build-up, training, getting out on the field, you can’t replace it, so there was never a moment in my head I didn’t think about not coming back.”
He also praised the impact former team-mate and skipper Bolger has had on the team since announcing in October he was retiring on health grounds following numerous concussions.
The former Quins and UAE skipper is still involved at Quins as an assistant to head coach Mike McFarlane. And just like during his playing days, Marshall says Bolger remains the heartbeat of Quins.
“He’s been massive. He creates the ethos in the team,” Marshall said of Bolger.
“He was the central man last year when we won everything and he’s brought that confidence and belief in this year, in us, as players, and the boys really feed off it.
“He’s the man in the huddle getting us up for it before the game and everyone feeds off his energy. There’s a confidence being an Abu Dhabi Harlequin. We always knew he was a big part of it and he’s still a huge part of this team.”
Some would see a lone fixture prior to the Christmas holidays as a hindrance, but several Dubai Eagles players have rearranged flights due to the excitement surrounding the first proper away fixture since forming as a club.
Eagles will hope to soar when they head west for a clash with Louie Tonkin’s high-flying Bahrain on Friday, who are second in the West Asia Premiership after four games, only on points difference behind Jebel Ali Dragons.
Of Eagles’ four games this season, three have been at their Dubai Sports City home, with their sole away fixture a sound 68-0 beating at Dragons.
They are now venturing a little further as the WAP returns, haphazardly, for just one game following the rugby season’s brief hiatus for the Dubai Sevens – although there will then be another month gap before the season resumes in mid-January.
Away games, especially involving flights, can leave teams depleted in the Gulf, especially in the run-up to Christmas, but Eagles captain Conor Coakley insists the club is excited about heading to Bahrain.
“We’re actually looking alright for numbers, only a few have gone home for the holidays at this stage. Some boys have actually rearranged their flights around the game, which is great,” said the Irishman.
“It’s a good day out for an away game at Bahrain, a fantastic club, great crowd, and it’s a first real away day with the Eagles, so everyone is putting their hand up. We’ve trained well since the Sevens, we’re regrouped and focused on this week, and we’re all up for it.”
Tonkin’s side haven’t played a game of 15s rugby in well over a month, while their last home game in the WAP was as long ago as September 29 – the 15-15 draw with Abu Dhabi Harlequins. And he hopes his side can sign off for the year in style.
“It’s been ages since we played a game of 15s, while it’s our first home Premiership game in over two months, so it’s been a huge lay-off and we’re excited,” said the Welshman.
“All the players had the fixture list in September so they all booked their flights around this game so we’re OK regarding holidays. We still have a few injuries with Greg Heath, Luke Radley and Rich Muncaster all unavailable.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming Eagles to Bahrain and hopefully we’ll have a big crowd to give us a good send-off for 2017.”
Elsewhere, the Abu Dhabi derby sees Saracens hosting Harlequins back at their spiritual home of Al Ghazal, after a deal was struck by a Korean company who previously ran the golf club’s restaurant to take over the lease.
It means Sarries are back home after being evicted in the summer. Despite the good news, there is a touch of sadness to it, with chairman Jay Danielson relinquishing his role as he is heading back to his native Australia today after a decade in the desert.
“We’re back there tomorrow, but I’ll miss the game as I’m flying home,” said the Melbourne native.
“But the club has come to an agreement with the new company so that’s fantastic.
“It’s been very much playing on our minds not having a home this season. It’s been a fortress for us in previous years, but it’ll be a funny homecoming as we have a lot of new players, who’ve not actually played at our spiritual home.”
It’s been a rough start to the season on the pitch for Sarries, bottom of the table following four defeats, while the suffered an 81-0 hiding in the UAE Premiership Cup quarter-finals at the hands of Dubai Hurricanes last week.
Despite this, Quins coach Mike McFarlane knows his side face opponents that always raise their game for the capital city derby.
“It’s always a fierce game and a nice touch we are back at Al Ghazal where the Sarries were so successful, so it has all the ingredients for a great derby clash for the ‘Capital Cup’,” said McFarlane.
“It’s good to get back to 15s albeit a one-off game as such before the Christmas break. We are missing numerous players but it gives players a great opportunity to step up in a high profile derby clash.”
Canes host Dragons in a Dubai derby at The Sevens. And skipper Ross Samson says Dragons have a full squad looking to cement their grip on top spot going into the festive break.
“We’re not struggling for numbers, everyone’s roaring and we want to keep the momentum up,” said the scrum-half.
“If we can get a win here it’s all to play for after Christmas and we’re in a nice position.
“We’ve got a full squad. We know they have a decent squad, had a good run at the Sevens and are confident so we’re not taking it lightly. It’s a local derby too. We’re looking forward to it and we know we have to be at our best.”
Canes are fresh from an 81-0 mauling of Sarries in the UAE Premiership Cup last week, and even though head coach Mike Wernham’s side will be buoyed by that, he says it’s a difficult time of year.
“With schools breaking up it’s a difficult time of year to be at full strength, although we still have a strong team out,” he said.
“The Sarries game gave us a chance to try other players and units out, which worked really well. The 81 points was pleasing but the 0 even more so.
“Our defence has been pleasing and it’s going to be under more pressure as we face arguably the strongest side, sitting at the top of the league, so we’re under no illusions we’re in for a tough night.”