Mike Pugsley is confident Dubai Wasps can return to prominence in UAE rugby despite revealing that he is to step down as head coach at the end of the season.
Pugsley, head of rugby at The English College, Dubai, is heading home with his pregnant wife at the end of term following a disappointing two-year spell in charge of the club.
There was a buzz surrounding Wasps when the Welshman took the helm in the summer of 2015, at a time when the club had just endured the most tumultuous season of their existence.
The 2014/15 campaign had started on a sour note when the club was fined Dh10,000 by the UAE Rugby Federation for failing to send a member of staff on a medical course.
Worse was to come as they were relegated from the UAE Premiership, and it’s been a slow descent into decline ever since.
Pugsley, who had previously coached Sharjah Wanderers for four years, led the club to sixth place in the UAE Conference in 2015/16, although they failed to reach the Top 6 play-off final – but 2016/17 has been full of woe for Wasps.
They finished 10th of 11 teams in this year’s Conference, with just two wins from 10 games, and have little chance of ending the campaign with silverware as they are currently bottom of the Bottom 5 competition following two opening defeats.
“It’s been a frustrating season for a number of different reasons,” said the 32-year-old.
“We lost a few players at the end of last year which hit us quite hard and we’ve lost a number of boys throughout the season, like our captain, to a long term injuries which have disrupted things.
“General availability hasn’t allowed us to pick our strongest team or given us any kind of consistency with team selection. As well as that we’ve been quite poor too and discipline has been a massive problem for us.
“I think we gave 27 penalties away against Sharjah for example so it’s been a big, big issue, as well as failing to convert pressure into points.”
Unlike the early days when they were known as Xodus Wasps from 2013 thanks to financial backing, these days the club is run by just three people.
Pugsley coaches two senior teams while Laurence Parker and Ben Rothwell juggle playing duties while acting as joint chairmen.
And despite their continuing troubles, Pugsley hopes happier times are on the horizon.
“We’re only a three man club, between me, Laurence and Ben,” he said.
“We haven’t got the big backing, resources and sponsorships like other clubs have got so we’ve done well fulfilling all fixtures across both men’s teams. We’ve got the women’s team going too so I’m confident the club can go on to bigger and better things.
“It’s just about retaining players for next year and hopefully recruiting some coaches and other personnel, like team managers, to help out at the club, because doing it between the three of us, with Ben and Lawrence also playing as well as being co-chairmen and me the only coach across two squads for forwards and backs, it’s difficult.
“They are doing the job of three or four people and trying to play so it’s very difficult for them.”
Wasps are seven points of the top two in the Bottom 5 and lost a heartbreaker 19-17 to Arabian Knights last weekend, but Pugsley is determined to fight to the death and hopes he can sign off with a sting in the tail.
“I’m hoping to bounce back from recent weeks. We’ve still got a chance to get into the Bottom 5 play-offs and that’s what we’re going for now,” he added.
“It’s been tough, again we’ve been really unlucky with availability and injuries to key positions. We’ve looked the better side in the majority of matches but just haven’t managed to get that winning score on too many occasions.”
The battle for a play-off berth will go down to the final week of the West Asia Premiership season after Jebel Ali Dragons suffered a 28-24 defeat at the hands of Dubai Hurricanes on Thursday.
Henry Paul’s men could have sealed a Cup spot with a win, but came up against a spirited Canes outfit who won for just the third time this season.
Defeat leaves Dragons three points adrift of Dubai Exiles and although Paul is pleased his side get to decide their own fate in their final game next week, he bemoaned the fact his players’ indiscipline cost his side victory.
“It’s disappointing obviously but it’s been a disjointed week so we got what we deserved and met a committed Canes team that never relented and credit to them never gave up,” said the New Zealander.
“I would like to vent on the officiating but no-one takes notice and at the end of the day it’s not the refs kicking the ball out on the full and dropping passes.
“But when our scrum was marching the opposition back at rates of knots and as the scrum disintegrates they somehow come up with the ball it gets disheartening for the players investing time and effort and seeing little reward.
“There are lots of positives. Even behind some dubious penalties and lopsided penalty count we scored some cracking tries.
“We showed great spirit being behind by 10 at one stage to get ourselves in front and lead by a point and keep that lead for 25 minutes until the last moments of the game when a couple of our players lost their cool and made poor decisions to let the stubborn and well organised Canes side in for a chance they took well.
“We’ve got another tough fixture v Sarries but at least get to decide our own fate because of the good wins earlier in the season. I expect a positive reaction this week at training and against Sarries.”
Canes skipper Dave Knight was pleased his side show more resolve than in previous games.
He said: “It was nice to get the win. I felt we dominated more than the score suggests but I’m glad we didn’t do what we usually do and implode in the second half.”
Jebel Ali Dragons insist they and the rest of the league will not treat Abu Dhabi Harlequins as rightful West Asia Premiership champions unless they lift the trophy on March 31.
The landscape of the domestic rugby season was dramatically altered earlier this month when it was discovered the Premiership had been played on a league format all season as opposed to a play-offs and final structure like previous campaigns.
With all teams vying for the Premiership’s top four play-off spots in a bid to become the 2016/17 champion, it was overlooked that the play-offs are actually for the end-of-season West Asia Cup and Trophy competitions.
This was confirmed by Asia Rugby’s Ghaith Jalajel, while the UAE Rugby Federation hastily revamped their fixtures schedule to confirm that March 31 will play host to the final of the Cup and Trophy rather than the Premiership final as first believed.
Rule 4.1.2 of the WAP competition rules, published in September last year, state the Premiership is played over 14 rounds, home and away. Quins’ 47-7 victory over Dragons on February 24 gave them an unassailable lead at the top of the table.
No-one was aware of this fact – least of all champions Quins – apart from Bahrain, who pointed it out to their UAE rivals.
It has left a bitter taste in the mouths of their opponents, including Dragons, who claim the true champions will still be determined by the play-offs.
Asked if the atmosphere surrounding the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence at training ahead of tonight’s game with Dubai Hurricanes had fallen flat in the wake of the revelation, Dragons skipper Ross Samson said: “No, not at all. It’s never flat when we have a local derby.
“We are aiming to get to the play-offs and then take things from there. Well done to Quins on winning whatever it was that they won the other week, but the real winner is whoever wins the play-off final, we all know that.”
Dragons and Quins are already assured of meeting in the UAE Premiership final on April 7 but Jebel Ali director of rugby, Paul Hart, believes all teams will still treat the West Asia Cup winners as the true Premiership champions.
“This is a huge game for us. Win and we get our spot in the top four and plays-offs,” said UAE international Hart of tonight’s clash with Canes.
“We feel that the winner of the (West Asia Cup) final on March 31 are the champions. I think that is the way all teams have seen it all season, so no change in mind set from us.
“I am not taking anything away from the great season Quins are having, but I know Quins very well and they won’t be happy being given an unexpected title and then losing in the play-offs.”
As for Canes, having been left deflated following a run of five straight defeats, coach Mike Wernham insists the prospect of winning the West Asia Trophy has injected a little bit of life into the tail end of their campaign.
“We’ve been disappointed with the ends of our last few games, where we could have gotten more from them,” Wernham said ahead of today’s Dubai derby.
“The lads are hurting and hopefully we can sort this out. There’s more to play for with the restructure of the tournament, there’s an extra motivation and you can see that in training this week.
“It’s important to use this game knowing we’ve got more to play for so we’re hoping to take a step forward. Dragons have a lot to play for and they’re in a position where we want to be.”