The domestic rugby landscape in the UAE looks more competitive than ever following Dubai Exiles’ return to prominence in 2015-16.
Under the leadership of new director of rugby Jacques Benade, the region’s oldest club will celebrate half a century as UAE Premiership and West Asia Championship (WAC) champions.
That is something that would not have looked likely as the season drew to a close 12 months ago.
Exiles finished fifth in last season’s UAE Premiership, which meant they failed to qualify for the coveted Gulf Top Six, left alone instead to languish in the second-tier Gulf Conference.
Although they won that competition, making it back-to-back victories, it was a sign of how far they’d fallen.
Their descent was halted with Benade’s arrival although their journey back to the top has been rather rapid.
They played out a season-long duel with Abu Dhabi Harlequins for silverware this season, which was fascinating from start to finish.
The 22-18 win for Quins at Zayed Sports City in October was the game of the season, although there were many other encounters that pushed it close.
However, for sheer drama, it could not be beaten. And, while much better was predicted following Benade’s arrival from Ireland and a clutch of new faces, that game signified the moment that they were to be taken seriously.
Although the overriding feeling following pushing Exiles so close will be disappointment for Quins, it’s been an impressive first season in charge for Mike McFarlane.
He is a fierce competitor and will not be content with claiming the Gulf Men’s League title at December’s Dubai Sevens.
They were only halted from making a clean sweep of domestic trophies by Exiles, which should ensure for an even fiercer feud in 2016-17.
Dubai Exiles RFC. West Asia Champions and UAE Premiership Champions. Job done in great style & with good blokes... pic.twitter.com/rKSeyD6VQb— Mike Wolff (@mikewolff1967) 8 April 2016
The final act of 2014-15 saw Abu Dhabi Saracens crowned champions of west Asia.
They had to play second fiddle to the Quins and Exiles rivalry this season but, again, with a new coaching team at the helm, Stephen Hamilton and Craig Nutt can be hugely satisfied with a campaign in which the club stood on its own for the first time since its 2011 inception.
A few more bodies and a bit more pace, combined with a season under of management under the duo’s belts, will do wonders for the men from Al Ghazal.
Looking back on the season will not provide largely happy memories for Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Hurricanes or Al Ain Amblers, but there is much for all three to look forward to.
And that's it. The title and double secured. Exiles romp home. What a superb season in their 50th year— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) 8 April 2016
Back-to-back treble-winning seasons for the men from Jebel Ali in 2012-13 and 2013-14 seem a long way away following two campaigns of struggle, but Dragons will be buoyed by former New Zealand and England dual code international Henry Paul’s arrival in July.
That will surely ruffle a few feathers and see Dragons propelled back towards the elite.
Reaching the semi-finals at the Dubai Sevens promised to reignite their season, but Dragons eventually fell to disappointing fifth and seventh-placed finishes in the UAE Premiership and WAC respectively.
Dubai Hurricanes’ malaise continued.
Whereas James Ham’s side often showed they can live with the biggest sides in the Gulf, pushing Doha and Quins close in the WAC, they rather ambled through another season, finishing fourth in the Premiership and fifth in the WAC with a combined record of seven wins in 18 games.
They will be hoping for a shot in the arm in time for next season.
Speaking of Amblers and 2015-16 provided the men from the Garden City with a rude awakening.
They won 15 games as they claimed last season’s UAE Conference and steamrollered into the Premiership – this season they won just once in 18 Premiership and WAC games.
Andrew Rouvi will be boosted by his side’s performance in 2016. They claimed a solitary win against Muscat in the WAC and played some thrilling attacking rugby, scoring four tries in six of their eight WAC matches. They will be hopeful of better things to come next season.
Overall, the Premiership proved its continuing strength this season, which will be evidenced when UAE rugby performance manager Apollo Perelini picks his 25-man Test squad for upcoming Asia Rugby Championship games in Uzbekistan next month being made up entirely of Premiership players.
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