It might be difficult to shake off the rust of what’s been a stop-start West Asia Premiership campaign in the early weeks of 2018, but Abu Dhabi Harlequins coach Mike McFarlane has been thoroughly impressed with his side since returning to training following the festive break.
Quins get back into the swing of things with what might look an inviting fixture against second bottom Dubai Eagles at their Zayed Sports City home on Friday, but McFarlane has been impressed with the “excellent intensity” shown as a crucial period of games gets underway at the top of the table.
“We can’t wait to get back amongst it,” said McFarlane.
“I’ve been really impressed with the players’ dedication over the break and they’ve come back raring to go, training with excellent intensity to kick Christmas into touch. They are a close knit bunch so they were happy to be back together and catching up.”
An upbeat Eagles captain, Conor Coakley, meanwhile, feels his side are capable of an upset, so long as the players have not been indulging their sweet tooths too much over the festive period back home with friends and family.
“It’s good to be back after the Christmas break. Our lads are looking fresh and sharp although a few look like they’ve had a few too many Quality Streets and enjoyed a good Christmas,” joked the Irishman.
“We’ve got a full strength squad and selection has been tough. We’ve had a few new arrivals come in this month which has given us a boost and provides completion for places, which is great.
“We’re very much underdogs but don’t be surprised if you see an upset in Abu Dhabi.”
Elsewhere, Dubai Exiles return to 15s action following a glittering triumph at the Dubai Sevens in December – a first victory in the shortened format of the game at a tournament they started since 2006.
But in 15s they haven’t played in over two months and are looking to end a run of three straight defeats to leading lights Jebel Ali Dragons, Bahrain and Quins.
Jacques Benade’s side are seven points behind Quins in third place, but the South African feels Exiles can still gatecrash the title party.
“The next three weeks will be very import for us if we want to be involved in the play-offs or challenging for a cup,” he said.
“I still think anyone in the top four or five can win the league so there is a lot to play for.”
Benade admitted there are some niggling injury concerns, with star fly-half Durandt Gerber likely to face a late fitness test, but he added that training has reconvened with a buzz about The Sevens.
“We are still missing two or three boys due to injuries but everyone is keen to go out there and play some good rugby,” added Benade, who believes both this weekend’s opponents Abu Dhabi Saracens and Eagles will cause problems for team s in the second half of the season.
“I’m not sure what to expect from Saracens after the Canes and Quins games but I am sure it will be very physical and they will be want to go out there and see this game as the start of a new year.
“There are always new players coming in after the Christmas break so I will not be surprised if Saracens or Eagles have some great results before the end of the season.”
Saracens were rocked before Christmas when chairman Jay Danielson left to return home to Australia, but they are back at their spiritual home of Al Ghazal, and captain Jonny Taylor is confident looking ahead.
“We still have a lot to do, but we looking in much better shape than when we started the season,” said the South African flanker.
“The club now has a home and there are many more improvements to come.”
Jacob Basson has replaced Danielson as chairman, while Peter Henderson has taken on the head coach role.
Taylor added: “Jakes, Hendo and others from the committee have really done a lot of hard work for us. Jakes, the new chairman, has led from the front. He is changing a lot for the better of the club.”
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.”