Abu Dhabi Saracens’ West Asia Cup triumph earlier this month capped a mesmeric rise from humble beginnings to kings of Gulf rugby in a little under four years.
Harlequins have ruled the capital city for almost four decades, but welcomed a baby brother into the Abu Dhabi family when Saracens were born in 2011. The younger sibling though is now all grown up, with their 26-20 win over Doha on March 20 establishing Sarries as a genuine rival and new force.
In truth, the rivalry has always been there, at least for Sarries. In their fourth season, however, their ambitions have matured. Petty rivalry is no longer their mandate. Their maiden success has given them a taste for the bigger picture.
Created in June 2011, Sarries’ roots can be traced back nearly 50 years and to Das Island, a tiny plot of land located 160km north-west of the capital in the middle of the Arabian Gulf. It has been inhabited by oil and gas industry personnel since production began in the 1950s.
Cricket, football and rugby pitches – all made of sand – kept workers entertained, and out of that grew the Das Island Rugby Team in 1962. They even entered a veterans team at the Dubai Sevens for a decade from around 2000, which is where the idea of creating a fully-fledged rugby club originated.
The man behind Saracens’ rise is outgoing club president Dave Jackson, who played for Das Island for several years from 2002. Together with another Das Island old boy, New Zealander Brett Bowie, the duo hatched a plan that is the modern day Saracens.
“It was a social thing to start off with and we always played at the Dubai Sevens. The reason it landed in my hands was because through the years the expats on Das Island started to leave one by one and the management came to me saying ‘we need to start a club’,” said Jackson.
Sarries were launched at Abu Dhabi Golf Club in June 2011 but, as with any new venture, the men in black and red initially struggled.
Jackson recalls 50 or 60 people turning up for the launch, including some from Quins keen to see what all the fuss was about. It may not have been a swarm, but it dwarfed the number at their first training session a few weeks later. “The first training there were two players, but it grew,” said the South African.
“You have to give Brett credit for rallying people and getting people down to training. There were a lot of sweat and tears to get that first team up and running. Throughout the 2011 season we never forfeited a game, but it was a rag-tag team.”
Smashed 41-3 by Quins 2nds in their first official game in the UAE Conference, things got easier. They actually finished third in their debut season and were promoted to the Premiership. Bowie left the club in 2012, as did several coaches over time, with Jackson wielding the axe on Paul Lowe, Tui Waruhia and Steve Botha.
“Anyone looking must have been thinking ‘what are Saracens doing?’,” joked Jackson. “I’ve had to make some really hard decisions to make sure the vision of the club moved in the direction I wanted. Some decisions were not liked but every one has been for the good of the club.”
After a debut Gulf Top Six campaign in 2013/14, Ali Thompson, a former Quin and UAE captain, stepped up to take on a player/coach role. Like a toddler, Sarries have made tentative steps.
They finished fifth in their first Premiership season and second in the ensuing Gulf Conference in 2012/13. Last season they made the GT6 but finished bottom. This year they made a quantum leap.
“It’s been a four-year project but a lot of the good has come this season,” said Jackson. “Wonderful things have happened all along but this season is when it got serious.”
Jackson has utilised his contacts back home to recruit a significant amount of players from the homeland. The likes of Jaen Botes, Gio Fourie and Lehan Koekemoer have all proved hugely influential.
Vogue Fitness & Cross Fit Yas, run by former Quins captain Billy Graham, ensured the players were in peak condition in pre-season and BounceBack Physiotherapy also came on board, with Tim Fletcher a mainstay on the touchline at Sarries’ games. They also became the first club to form part of Aviva Premiership side Saracens’ global network in February 2012.
A friendship was formed with Ed Griffiths, Saracens’ South African CEO, who rang his countryman in February 2012 to ask if Abu Dhabi wanted to become the first affiliate club. Where Abu Dhabi led, Seattle, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, Tblisi, Nairobi, Timisoara and Tonga have since followed.
“When looking for names, Brett suggested Saracens as the name is tied to the Middle East region. It was a nice fit for us,” said Jackson. “I think we’ve done them proud. I had a phone call from Ed saying the West Asia win was massive for Saracens. They were ecstatic.”
Sarries also received messages of congratulations from Saracens and England full-back Alex Goode. A first ever trophy will live long in the memory but that is especially the case for the man who became their first signing.
New Zealander Vatulele Tusitala began his UAE rugby career at Quins, where he played between 2008 and 2010. After taking a year off, Tusitala was planning to head back to Zayed Sport City in 2011 but chose instead to train with a new club because it was close to his home. He was one of the two who showed up at that first session.
“It was convenient at first but it became so much more,” said Tusitala. “After that I grew to love the club and what it stood for. Sarries had a real amateur feel to it and you felt more connected to each other because there were so few of us. It was an intimate club, you knew everyone, it was really family orientated.
“Some say the club has lost that somehow but, to me, it still has that feel. Clubs evolve as they grow and Sarries couldn’t stay a club with only 20 members forever.”
Tusitala, now 35, says he felt “massive pride” being in the crowd to see his beloved club clinch their first-ever trophy.
“I thought back to the day being the first player on the training field as soon as the final whistle blew. There was massive pride in what the boys and club have achieved in such short time,” he said.
After all the players, coaches, volunteers and more he has seen come and go through Al Ghazal in his time, Jackson says it is now time for him to leave too. He is stepping down imminently, handing the reins over to Jay Danielson.
“It’s sad but I’ll look back with fond memories and one man doesn’t make a club,” he said. “Everyone standing behind me, the likes of (team manager) Jacques Barnard and (former secretary) Mandy Lodge, that’s what makes a club. To single out people and say thank you for the last four years is very, very difficult, because there’s been so many of them.
“It’s a new exciting era and I’ll look ahead with anticipation to see what they do. I’ve got the club to this point, but I’m looking forward to where it goes from here.”
The Palmer name will remain synonymous with Arabian Knights RFC after Louise Palmer was named chairwoman following the death of her husband Neil.
Knights founder and chairman Neil, 45, died at his Dubai home following a heart attack shortly after arriving home from a holiday in Rome with Louise last month.
The family are firmly intertwined with the club, Louise helped Neil establish Knights six years ago was previously club treasurer, while sons Maximilian, 16, and Roman, 10, both play for the youth teams.
She said walking away from the club was simply “not an option”.
“We’ve got two sons left behind so I felt I needed to do it,” Louise said of taking over the reins of the Knights.
She was named Knights’ chairwoman at a UAE Rugby Federation (UAE RF) AGM and mid-season meeting on Monday night.
“It felt normal and the right thing to do. Together we’d done a lot of hard work and I didn’t want that to be lost.
“It’s obviously been a tough time but I feel very strongly about this and stepping away from the club was not an option at all.
“We all talk here about the Knights family and the support since Neil’s death has been overwhelming. The guys at the club all thought it was a natural progression for me to take over.”
Louise said she decided to take up the role of chairwoman from her late husband in order to “honour his legacy”.
The club works closely with the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation and has also, under Neil, played a huge role in introducing Emiratis to rugby.
Louise shares Neil’s passion for developing local talent and says plans are already in motion to increase Emirati participation next season.
“Neil and I had already talked about next season and I feel we need to carry that through. I want to maintain his legacy and vision for the club,” she said.
“Neil’s drive and enthusiasm made the Arabian Knights the club it is today; all inclusive, charity driven and a firm supporter of Emirati rugby.
“I personally want to honour his legacy by continuing the vision he had for the club. With the immense support I have from both within, and outside the club we will follow Neil’s ideas and continue to ensure his ethics and his inspiration will live on through the Arabian Knights.”
— UAE RUGBY FEDERATION (@uaerugby) March 24, 2015
Knights head coach John Taimana said: “The UAE RF have supported Louise moving from treasurer to take the role of chairwoman that provides continuity, stability and direction for the club members, the wider rugby community and our governing body.
“I look forward to being part of the leadership team ensuring that we all continue the plan that Neil had mapped out to provide the enjoyment of rugby to the expat and Emirati community.”
UAE RF secretary general Qais Al Dhalai added: “Neil’s legacy has been passed on to extremely capable and passionate hands, and the Federation is very pleased Louise will be leading the Arabian Knights into the future.
“Louise has the unwavering support from the rugby fraternity and we look forward to working with her, and the Arabian Knights, in the years to come.”
The UAE RF had already moved to recognise Palmer’s achievements and endeavours within the UAE rugby community by announcing that the Ultimate Recognition Award at the UAE Rugby Annual Awards has been renamed the Neil Palmer Award.
Fifteen-year-old Tyrese Johnson-Fisher will aim to cement his status as English rugby’s latest bright young thing when he turns out in the final of a major schools’ competition this Wednesday.
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The outside centre, a former pupil at Dubai’s GEMS Wellington International School, recently became a YouTube sensation after his rugby skills were highlighted following a blistering display in the NatWest Vase schools’ tournament.
Johnson-Fisher, who left the UAE in the summer of 2013 after five years and now boards at Oakham School, captains the English schools’ under-15 side.
His impressive performances for Oakham have propelled them to the NatWest Vase final – the school’s first in more than 10 years, with his semi-final highlights going viral after he helped himself to four tries and assisted another in a 47-27 thumping of Bishop Wordsworth.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 11, 2015
“It has been an absolute honour captaining the squad of a school with such an amazing rugby tradition,” Johnson-Fisher told Sport360. ”With players like Charlie Walker, Tom Croft and Lewis Moody having played for Oakham, it’s great to be a part of it.”
Reaching the NatWest Vase final was just the latest in a long list of achievements, with Johnson Fisher also managing to clock up an unbelievable 10.91 seconds for the 100m, the fastest ever time for a boy of his age in Britain.
But the teenager’s eyes remain firmly focused on rugby for now and ahead of Wednesday’s final at Twickenham, Johnson-Fisher reflected on the positive impact Dubai had on his sporting education.
“The transition between rugby in Dubai and England was really tough,” he said. “In Dubai it is a very fast-paced game, which is basically 7s styled but played by 15 men, it involves a lot of pace but there is not as much physicality.
“Dubai rugby was so enjoyable – playing in the heat and just running around constantly. Playing rugby in Dubai is unforgettable for me as some of my greatest and most memorable rugby moments came there – hopefully I will play there again soon.”