Mike McFarlane says there will be no dampening of expectations at Abu Dhabi Harlequins next season after being named the club’s new head coach.
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McFarlane might be taking over from Heineken Cup-winner Jeremy Manning at Quins, but he sees no reason why the Zayed Sport City-based side cannot surpass the achievements under the Kiwi last season.
After a stuttering start to the campaign, when they lost their opening two Sport360 UAE Premiership games to Dubai Hurricanes and Jebel Ali Dragons, Quins roared back, winning their next three to reach the Premiership final, where they exacted revenge on Canes with a 39-19 win.
They also took the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens in December, although they failed in their bid to win back-to-back Gulf Top Six titles and with it a chance for West Asia Cup glory, instead finishing third behind Doha and Abu Dhabi Saracens.
The influential Manning may have stepped down, but McFarlane says his team will not be using that as an excuse as he targets even greater success in 2015/16.
“The aims, as always, are we want to win the Premiership, win the Sevens and win the Gulf Top Six. We’d never hide that,” said McFarlane..
“We’re a top tier club and that’s where we should be. Being more clinical toward the end of the season I think we’re more than capable of achieving that.
Despite his new role, the 29-year-old is a familiar face at Quins, having coached the forwards last season alongside Clendon Pene, while he also played for them for two seasons before a broken leg forced him to quit.
With Pene and Manning’s assistant Scott Clark also stepping away from their roles, McFarlane is the only man left from last season’s coaching staff, but insists he did not feel like he had to stay on.
“Not at all. With Jeremy leaving it would have been easier to step away as a coaching team at the same time, but it’s just an opportunity. I think it’s the right time for me to take over,” he said.
With a baby due in September, McFarlane said he had been planning to walk away himself, but it was the team and his wife who convinced him to stay.
“I spoke to Jeremy and was actually going to stop coaching but the lads asked me to stay on,” he said.
“They actually got round me and got to my wife and persuaded her it would be a good idea.
Although the club may be losing a man of Manning’s stature and experience – he won the Heineken Cup with Munster in 2006 – McFarlane said the structures put in place by the foursome last season will stand the team in good stead moving forward.
He said: “With the coaching team we had and Jeremy’s expertise in-particular I think we developed the senior section remarkably.
“The players developed their skills and once we started piecing it together we showed the force we can be.”
Aside from the coaching reshuffle, there have already and will be more changes on the field, with charismatic and talented No8 Pene leaving the club as both a player and coach.
Bullocking centre Iziq Foa’i, meanwhile, is also departing for pastures new, while Sedburgh duo Matt Hawley, last season’s top scorer, and flanker Charlie Farmer have both returned to the UK.
“There’s a few holes appearing but with the transient society that Abu Dhabi is, it’s nothing new and the skill and ability of the players remain. There’s no excuses not to achieve our targets,” said Mcfarlane.
“We’re waiting for a few arrivals, possibly from England. We’re waiting to finalise a few deals for particular players.”
Despite Abu Dhabi Saracens bidding farewell to the two main men who sowed the seeds of their brilliant West Asia Cup success last season, chairman Jay Danielson doesn’t believe there is any cause for concern.
Having only come into being in 2011, Sarries won Gulf rugby’s grandest prize on March 20 by beating heavily fancied Doha 26- 20 in the hot house environment of Qatar.
Just two months later, however, president Dave Jackson, the lynchpin behind Sarries’ birth and rise, has stepped aside, head coach Ali Thompson following suit.
Two of Thompson’s charges from last season have stepped up to replace him, prop Craig Nutt and centre and backs coach Stephen Hamilton taking dual responsibility of the team for next season.
“It’s not going to be easy but it’s onwards and upwards for Saracens and I’m convinced Craig and Steve will do a great job,” said Danielson. The decision was confirmed at the club’s AGM held last Wednesday.
“Both had expressed an interest in taking on the role so we sat down and discussed it with them. The decision was unanimous, everyone is happy with it and the response has been positive from all the boys,” added the 37-year-old.
“Both bring a lot to the table. Our forward pack was a big element of our game (last season). We had the best scrum in the league and Craig was a big part of that.
“He has a very high level of rugby behind him back home, having played for Bargoed (Welsh Rugby Union Championship side and feeder club for Newport Gwent Dragons). Steve also has great pedigree of coaching and is a natural leader, he’s shown that on the field. Both are committed to the club and we will march on.”
Although fears are bound to surface about Sarries’ future after such a stellar season, with key figures stepping away, Danielson feels the familiar faces of Hamilton and Nutt will help smooth the transition.
“Obviously it’s a change of scenery but we are looking to the future and next season we’ll be stepping out onto the pitch looking to win,” he said.
There will be a degree of familiarity for Abu Dhabi Saracens next term with players Steve Hamilton and Craig Nutt taking dual coaching responsibilities following the resignation of Ali Thompson.
The duo expressed an interest in replacing the Scot, who stepped down on May 19 saying he wanted to spend more time with his young family, and club chairman Jay Danielson confirmed the appointment of Hamilton and Nutt at the club’s AGM on Wednesday.
After the high of winning the West Asia Club Championship a little over two months ago, Sarries have since had to contend with the exit of first the man that coached them to glory, Thompson, and the man behind the club’s emergence four years ago, former president Dave Jackson, who has also left the club since that March 20 milestone.
It’s a new era for the Al Ghazal club, but Danielson insists the club will not take a step back in 2015/16 and he is determined for Sarries to continue their upward curve.
“Both have the trust, understanding and respect of all the players and administration at the club and it’s a case of consistency, familiar faces and the fact we’re not brining in someone entirely different means less distractions,” said the 37-year-old Australian.
“It’s a new era for Sarries. There have been a lot of changes, but it doesn’t mean we’ll be taking a step back or things are going wrong.
“Everyone is keen to move forward and we’re still going to set our stall out to be a match-winning side next year.”