Dubai Sharks are the latest rugby team in the UAE to announce a change of coach, with new duo Dan Gawn and Richard Battley named as joint replacements for Kevin Drew.
Both were involved with the Dubai Sports City-based club last season, Scot Battley coaching the backs and Gawn, a New Zealander, playing as well as coaching the forwards.
Sharks finished eighth in the Sport360° UAE Conference, going on to reach the Plate final of the post-Christmas Bottom 6 competition, losing to Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds 31-20.
It was the second year in succession that Sharks had tasted defeat in a final.
The club has grown steadily since its 2009 formation and progression is key for the new men at the helm.
“Kevin had coached us for a few seasons so we’re hoping to carry on where he left off,” said Gawn, 49.
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“We’ve done quite well in the last two years in that we’ve got to the finals of the competitions we’re playing in.
“We’re hoping to move on from that and the goal is to be in the top four of the Conference league next season. A modest goal to start off with, but that’s what we want. Primarily we’ve got the same focus, winning rugby and enjoying rugby. I think it’ll work well.”
Battley, 35, added: “I’m very encouraged for the start of the season. Pre-season starts on July 1 and a lot of players from Dubai have shown interest. You can tell there’s a lot of excitement about Sharks. It’s a team that means business and I’d like to think it could be a breakout year for us.”
Their appointments are part of a new, over-arching reshuffle of the club’s set-up, with separate coaching changes also made to the second XV and Under-18 teams.
Adrian Cartwright and Drew Franklin take charge of the seconds, while Gawn’s son, Zac, will coach the U18s. Dougall Harvison has been brought on board as a defence coach with Jason Rueland appointed assistant coach.
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.