It’s been a strange season for Dubai Hurricanes, too good to be mired down in a relegation battle, yet seemingly unable to quite break into the elite of the West Asia Premiership.
While Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain battle for the title and Abu Dhabi Saracens and Dubai Eagles scrap to avoid finishing bottom of the table, Canes find themselves marooned in mid-table.
Defeat to fierce rivals Exiles was a fifth loss in eight games this season. Their three wins have come home and away against Sarries, the other at Eagles, but captain Dave Knight feels they have no-one to blame but themselves.
“We’re very disappointed after last week so are looking to bounce back,” Knight said of last week’s 36-11 loss to Exiles.
“We feel like we are good enough to be in that top four but we are our own worst enemy and can’t seem to put a complete performance in.
“It’s a must win this week and hopefully will give us some confidence going forward.”
Eagles, meanwhile, will look to bounce back from their own demoralising defeat to Sarries last week, when they take on a solid Canes side.
For Eagles captain Conor Coakley, coach Andrew O’Driscoll and scrum-half Josh Ives, it’s a particularly poignant encounter as they’ll be heading to their former home at The Sevens.
“For me personally, I used to play for Hurricanes so I’m looking forward to it,” said Coakley.
“I’ve got some good friends there and I’m looking forward to a tough, gritty game. They’ve got a big pack now but I think we’re going to match them.
“We’ve had a couple of difficult weeks, but the guys have responded really well. On Sunday we hit the gym together at Dubai Sports City and had a good chat about the game.
“We got together Monday night and got focused, I loved the attitude. We’ve definitely got a focus for this game. It means a lot to the team. We thought in the last encounter (Canes lost 28-12) it was a close one and we didn’t feel there was much between us, so we’re targeting a win.”
Elsewhere on Friday, Bahrain may have been bloodied following back-to-back West Asia Premiership defeats – their first two of the season – but they will be buoyed as they get set to welcome Abu Dhabi Saracens for the first of four straight home games.
Louie Tonkin’s men came off worse in defeat to Jebel Ali Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the last two weeks with Dubai Exiles leapfrogging them as they slid six points off the pace.
But after a testing period, Tonkin’s side can now look to recover with some favourable home fixtures, while the Welshman is also relishing the return of several injured players, including skipper and last year’s player of the season, Adam Wallace.
Even though the home run begins with the visit of lowly Sarries, Tonkin will be aware his side are facing a team fresh from their first win of the season against Dubai Eagles last week – a victory that saw Sarries halt a run of seven straight defeats.
“We have four games at home and two of which are against Exiles and Dragons, so we’re very much still in the picture (for the title),” said Tonkin.
“But, we know we have to win all our games now.
“We’re also chuffed we are finally getting to welcome back some of our best backs from last year. Greg Heath, our top try scorer, and Adam Wallace, our player of the year, who have both been out since the Western Clubs Champions League. And also our 10, Ross Preedy, who’s back from his ACL reconstruction.”
Travelling away, especially outside the UAE, is always a tall order for teams, but Sarries can take huge comfort from last week’s win, which saw them come off the foot of the table.
And captain Jonny Taylor said: “The mood has been really good this week. A few new faces have also arrived which is great news for the club.”
Mike McFarlane insists Abu Dhabi Harlequins are eager to reassert their dominance at Zayed Sports City after responding from a first home defeat in over three years last week with a victory.
A slender 20-17 loss to Jebel Ali Dragons on January 19 saw Quins lose at home for the first time since being beaten 10-6 by city rivals Saracens on January 16, 2014.
Having seen their proud run finally come to a halt last week, McFarlane’s side set about starting this fresh streak in fine style after beating Bahrain 27-5 on Friday.
McFarlane is determined to ensure that the home defeat was only a blip.
“We are proud of that record and of course would like this to be the start of another one,” said McFarlane.
“Everyone tries to make their home a fortress but to actually do it, especially in such a competitive league, is testament to the players’ commitment and success.”
With Dragons having a bye last weekend, Quins’ win inches them back into top spot of the West Asia Premiership, a point ahead of Henry Paul’s side.
“I was really happy with our set-piece against Bahrain which I thought gave us a good platform,” said McFarlane.
“I thought we could have taken further advantage of it also, however, mauls were somehow spoiled and our front row had a hard time even though they were on the front foot – something we will focus on during video analysis this week.”
Five trophies won last season may suggest a golden period of dominance in the capital, but Quins are undergoing a period of transition as their rivals rise to the challenge.
They have lost key players William Umu, Patrick Jenkinson and Brian Geraghty – and had to cope with the shock retirement of captain Ben Bolger on the eve of the 2017/18 campaign.
Although most clubs in the region lose players due to the nature of an expat league, Quins are without a staggering 13 players from last season’s quintuple-winning side.
“It’s been incredibly difficult to rebuild the squad, embed structures and patterns that suit new personnel whilst ensuring we reach the expectations we set ourselves each session, game and season,” added McFarlane.
“The biggest thing we have is our culture which we pride ourselves on and which pulls us through tough situations.
“We’ve lost 13 first team players from last year. We currently have 23 injuries throughout our first and second team squads with seven out for the season.”
The reigning West Asia Premiership winners have a bye this weekend, but then face two tough games on the road – against Dubai Hurricanes and resurgent Dubai Exiles.
Dubai Exiles take on Dubai Eagles on Thursday night knowing a bonus point win against a team they torched 85-8 on opening night will catapult them back into the title picture.
A week ago Exiles were seven points off third place. But maximum points against Eagles at home this evening would see them leapfrog Bahrain into third, putting them a few points off the loser of the big top of the table clash between Jebel Ali Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins on Friday.
After their return to 15s action last week was postponed due to Abu Dhabi Saracens failing to raise a team, coach Jacques Benade insists his team are desperate to get back to action – having only played one game of rugby in the last three months.
“After the disappointment of not playing last weekend I think everyone at the club can’t wait to get the second round of the league going,” said the South African, who missed Exiles’ narrow 29-25 defeat to Quins on November 3 due to work commitments.
“We just want to go out there and play some rugby. It’s been a few months without a 15s game so we will be very rusty but also buzzing to go and play. We just need some game time and to go out and enjoy ourselves.”
The UAE fixture list is always convoluted and subject to change from season to season. But Benade believes it needs addressing for the 2018/19 campaign.
He added: “I think it is important that the UAE Rugby Federation look at the fixtures for next year and sit with the clubs and see how we in the UAE can make sure that it’s better organised.”
Despite the anticipation of returning to action, Exiles are hampered by several serious injuries. Second row lehan Koekemoer has undergone shoulder surgery and will be out for the season, as is livewire winger Jerry Kilicanasau due to a dislocated shoulder.
Ex-Sarries full-back Thinus Steyn, meanwhile, is also out after suffering an unspecified injury last week in training.
And despite the scoreline the last time these two sides met, Benade is not expecting a similar outcome.
“I know the Eagles missed players last weekend and didn’t perform as well as they wanted to, but I know they will be keen to put that right tomorrow night,” said Benade, who bemoaned wasted chances in earlier, narrow defeats to their big rivals this season.
“We created a lot of changes against Quins, Dragons and Bahrain to win those games but were not patient and clinical enough, and that is something we really need to focus on in this second part of the season.”
Eagles fly-half Sean Carey insists his side are a different prospect to the rag tag bunch that turned up for their maiden game as a fledgling club just four short months ago.
“We’re looking forward to tomorrow,” said Carey, a former Exiles player.
“We’ve played everyone so we’re back around again. Exiles put a lot of points on us at the start so we know where we are now as a team, we know what every team has to offer too.
“We’re a bit light on numbers, a few players injured. We have a massive squad but some of our first team players are injured. We’ll give it a good go. We’re targeting the next few weeks with a big few games coming up.”
Elsewhere, Sarries welcome Dubai Hurricanes to Al Ghazal, hoping to earn their first win of the season following seven straight defeats – the latest of which was consequence of a forfeit after canceling last week’s fixture against Exiles.
For Canes coach Mike Wernham, the buzz word has been accuracy in training this week.
“December 14 seems like a mighty long time ago,” said Wernham, referencing the last time Canes played, a 30-13 defeat to Dragons.
“We finished that half of the season with a lot of disappointment. We played some really good stuff against Dragons for 20 minutes, unfortunately we overplayed a bit and made some errors, let the game go.
“We’ve been back for two weeks and there’s definitely been a little added aggression and we’re looking forward to getting back out there again. We’re away at Sarries and targeting a bonus point win. We know we need to stretch ourselves.
“It’s been the hardest selection for the coaches with a month off and training numbers good.”
Having put in a lot effort so far this season, with little to no reward, Wernham is hoping the tide can change for his side.
“We know we have a big second half of the season,” he added.
“We’re hoping we get a little bit more now. We’ve been putting in the effort and made huge strides. It’s now up to the boys to perform.
“There’s been so many games the boys could have won against the four teams ahead of us. We’re hoping more things now come in our favour.
We need to get out there and put the words into performances, less talk and more action.”