Rising costs but sinking sponsors have Abu Dhabi Harlequins chairman Andy Cole fearing the club might be forced to stop travelling to games or even pull out of the cross-border West Asia Premiership in the near future.
Cole is also hugely concerned that the end of a lucrative three-year partnership with Etihad Airways could jeopardise the hosting of the club’s renowned Abu Dhabi Harlequins Junior Rugby Tournament next season.
The UAE’s leading club swept all before them on the field last season, capturing all five trophies on offer – including the triple crown of West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens.
But off the field, they are not in such rude health. Quins have lost Dh500,000 in sponsorship deals since the end of the 2016/17 campaign.
HSBC, who for years jointly sponsored their mini and youth tournament, the premier event of its kind in the Middle East, pulled the plug a year ago, while ties with Etihad have now also been severed.
“At the moment there’s a real fear we might not be able to host the tournament next season,” said Cole of a tournament that attracted 251 teams from 17 clubs around the Gulf earlier this year when it was hosted at Quins’ Zayed Sports City base.
“It won’t be Etihad anymore, just the junior tournament. My concern is if we don’t get a sponsor for that we might have to not hold it, which would be a real shame.
“That tournament is in the region of Dh150,000 to host. Last year we lost HSBC, we still had Etihad, so we lost 50 per cent of the sponsorship. We still went ahead.”
Quins spent a gargantuan Dh773,000 total on pitch hire at ZSC last season – nearly double the cost from the 2015/16 campaign – although fees are not charged for the youth tournament.
Cole added: “Zayed Sports City pitches are free for that event. If we get a medium sized sponsor and the pitches we can still probably hold it. The cost for us is we have to pay for the cleaners, security guards, ambulances, ice and water. It’s still quite a lot of money for a two-day event.
“Thankfully we had Etihad for three years. But they are now looking out for longer term contracts and despite having a good relationship with us they have to look at the contracts where they’re contractually tied in.
“It’s disappointing as you can see sponsorship going into certain one-off events that is double what we get for the year. I guess rugby is a sport not at the top of the list for these companies.”
Cole says the club has enough in reserve to survive next season, with membership fees rising by 20 per cent, but he knows the club cannot continue to do that.
“We’re fortunate in that we have a reserve to see us through situations like that,” he said. “Because the player base is quite large we don’t need too much to cover outgoings. We’re very fortunate.
“We can’t keep increasing fees by 20 per cent year on year though. We’ll just start losing numbers. And if we lose numbers it becomes 30 or 40 per cent. At some point it’s not going to be sustainable.”
Following the end of the Etihad deal, Quins are likely to start the 2017/18 season in September without a title sponsor on their playing jerseys, because kit manufacturers require three months to meet the club’s incredible demand for 1,000 playing shirts for players from the senior men’s side all the way down to grass roots level.
“At the moment we don’t have any irons in the fire,” he added. “(Today) is our deadline for kit to be printed and I’ve only got one medium-sized sponsor.
“We have small sponsors, for the sleeves, but no main brand on the front. Because we order so many – we’re looking at 1,000 vests, 1,000 playing tops, 1,000 training tops, then shorts and socks – they need eight-12 weeks.
“That’s for all players from senior all the way down.”
Cole admits Quins are not alone and are in fact in a lot better position than other clubs. And although there remains three months to go until the season starts and a year before things get drastic, he foresees dark clouds on the horizon if the financial struggle continues.
“I guess we would have to consider any away games or West Asia games involving travel. Pulling out of the competition or not playing away games,” he warned.
“That’s probably worst case scenario. We’ve been asked by the UAE Rugby Federation to have medics travel to away games as well as all home games, and also to video all home matches.
“But that’s an additional cost and we’re hoping we can do that on a barter agreement. We’re working on that right now but it could be an issue.
“It’s very difficult. It’s always been more difficult in Abu Dhabi but with the current climate it’s bad for everyone.
“Dubai is probably a bit more commercially minded but all clubs are finding it tough. It’s not limited to Abu Dhabi. We probably got hit a lot harder but all the clubs are struggling.
“A few clubs didn’t travel at the end of last season because they wanted to save money on travel costs for a game that is meaningless. Of course that’s not fair on the team they’re travelling to as they miss out on gate receipts, bar takings and so on. It’s not good.
“Doha are not in the competition next season. And while on the positive side that means costs will go down, it means the standard drops slightly.”
Alun Wyn Jones is bracing for a furious All Blacks backlash when the British and Irish Lions arrive in Auckland for Saturday’s third Test series decider.
But first the Wales lock is allowing himself a moment to savour the Lions’ 24-21 win over a 14-man New Zealand in Wellington.
Jones was at the heart of an impressive display by the Lions pack at Westpac Stadium, more than justifying his selection after a lacklustre performance in the opening Test had critics calling for his head.
The 31-year-old said the tourists needed to rest and regroup before a clash with the back-to-back world champions in Auckland that will see them chase the first Lions series victory in New Zealand since 1971.
“We’ve got to make sure we enjoy this win because I’ve had similar occasions in the past and not enjoyed them,” he told reporters before the squad headed to the South Island resort town of Queenstown for a break.
“We’ll get the best out of everyone if we do enjoy it. Work sometimes becomes an obsession and that’s not good. You have to realise where you are and what you’re doing.”
But he warned his teammates needed to be back at their best against the wounded All Blacks at Eden Park, where the hosts have not lost since 1994.
“It’s still a level series and that’s all it is at the moment. We stepped up from the first Test and there’s no doubt that they’ll do that this week. We need to build on this and be ready,” he said.
“We’re 1-1 and we’ve got a big week ahead. We need to switch off and recover, but then we’ll look at those penalties and certain areas where we can probably play a little bit wider.”
Jones was heartened that the Lions forwards finally combined to show what they were capable of as a unit in Wellington after performing only in fits and starts for much of the tour.
“Individual people make packs and when you do your individual role in that you get a complete pack,” he said. “For the large part there was a lot of that, particularly in the first half.
“We have showed our physicality in spurts. Against the Crusaders I think we showed what we could do as a pack. We answered some questions again (in Wellington).
“On the whole, the performance wasn’t complete, but we’ll patch those areas up because we’re going to be facing an All Blacks team that’s chomping at the bit next week.”
Jones has previous experience of a Lions decider after captaining the side to a convincing 41-16 third Test win over Australia in Sydney in 2013 to seal the series 2-1.
He said that experience taught him that the Lions did not need to change their preparation radically for this weekend’s high-stakes game but they must maintain their focus.
“We know what’s at stake and the intensity in the game will go up again, as it did four years ago,” he said.
“Very little will change from our point of view. I don’t see why we can’t improve.
The British & Irish Lions beat 14-man New Zealand in Wellington, evening the series at one apiece.
Who will secure the deciding Test at Eden Park?
Let us know your thoughts as our two writers debate.
CHRIS BAILEY SAYS ‘YES’
After an hour’s play in Wellington on Saturday only a clown – perhaps a mocked-up Warren Gatland – would have told you that a Lions series win remained a possibility.
But following that impossibly grim third quarter, the tourists flipped the game on its head.
A miserable Mako Vunipola performance had been topped off with a sin bin but, with the playing field levelled for the first time since Sonny Bill Williams’ red card, instead it was the Lions who found another gear.
Gatland’s best-laid plans materialised in front of his eyes. Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, the controversial combination at 10-12 with the unfortunate Ben Te’o waylaid, showed the value of two world-class playmakers in sync.
The pair used their dummy runners and opened up green grass on the left before Taulupe Faletau surged over and wrested all the momentum back for the Lions.
Eight minutes later Sexton again put the All Blacks under his spell as he found an on-rushing Jamie George, who set up the Conor Murray snipe.
It was ironic that in a week in which Gatland admitted he had bowed to pressure by not featuring the ‘geography six’ midweek, a daring selection decision ultimately won the day.
Te’o’s absence at inside centre had also been pegged as a defensive worry but Farrell took his lumps in the channel and the magnificent Sean O’Brien had been tasked to lend both him and Sexton extra support. Another tick in the box for Gatland’s coaching.
The Lions also made a mess at the breakdown, with Sam Warburton slowing down Aaron Smith at the base even when the pressure mounted.
And though they conceded an embarrassing seven penalties in that 20-minute horror-show after half-time, just nine points were conceded in that time.
If they don’t get that penalty count down against a full complement of All Blacks none of the above will matter. But they have drawn up the right blueprint and boy, do they have the belief.
ALEX BROUN SAYS ‘NO’
The All Blacks were not at their best in Wellington. Even before the match was turned on its head with the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand seemed rattled by the physicality of the Lions. The look of confusion on their faces told a story. Conditions were also not conducive for the All Blacks’ high-tempo ball-in-hand style.
You could argue forever about what would have happened if SBW had stayed on the field but my feeling is the Lions desperation and intensity may still have got them home even if the All Blacks were at their full compliment.
Injuries and suspensions have been bitterly cruel to the All Blacks in this series. Already missing Dane Coles before the series started they have now lost Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, SBW and probably Waisake Naholo from their first choice XV.
All this should add up to a Lions win in Auckland this Saturday, right? Wrong.
The All Blacks have paid the Lions the ultimate compliment in the first two Tests, coming up with a game plan to counteract what they saw as the Lions strength – physicality and set-piece. Usually the All Blacks just go out and play their own game, never mind who the opposition are.
But in this series they have played high-possession rugby (61 per cent in both Tests), with low-risk ball carrying and focus on ball retention. The plan worked perfectly in Auckland and in Wellington they were 100 per cent at ruck time.
It’s all been very unlike the ABs. Usually they are happy to let the opposition have the ball knowing as soon as they over commit or make an error they will swoop and race away for a long range counter-attacking score. Or even if the opponent scores three tries, New Zealand will score
The great thing about the Lions evening the series is the All Blacks must now jettison that low-risk style and go for broke. They will try to run the Lions off the park with their pace and skill. They will turn it on and when they do, at their fortess Eden Park, no one on Earth can get anywhere near them.