Alex Natera has been putting his Doha side through their early paces as pre-season got underway in Qatar last week – although he is preparing for life devoid of West Asia Premiership rugby next season.
The botcott of Qatar by the UAE and several other Gulf nations in June left Doha in a precarious situation, although they were given hope last month when Asia Rugby revealed it was looking at arranging Doha matches to be played on neutral territory in Muscat.
Natera, however, claims that possibility is looking ever more remote with the club concerned about the costs involved and loss of clubhouse revenue on matchdays.
“Our only hope of playing in the West Asia Premiership is if the blockades are lifted in the next few weeks and if the UAE Rugby Federation do have a back-up fixture list with Doha included in it,” said the Australian.
“I think it’s pretty fair to say, although we would like to, it’s highly unlikely we’ll be playing in the Premiership this season.
“This is still our ideal option and we have to prepare for that scenario just in case. But it’s unlikely we’ll play our games in Muscat as it sounds like we are expected to cover all expenses for both home and away fixtures for both teams – a ridiculous suggestion that actually says a lot on its own.”
Pre-season has, nevertheless, started in earnest, with Natera reiterating that Doha will play competitively this season – with the possibility they might even play in Sri Lanka.
“We have been busy with other options and we are optimistic that we will be able to play in another league overseas this season,” he added.
“We are excited about this prospect and hopefully we’ll get some definitive answers with I’s dotted and T’s crossed before the month is out.
“I’ve told the lads we will be playing rugby this season and we need to approach these early days as if we will be in the WAP and kicking off in mid-September.
“We started pre-season last week. There are still lots of players away still but we’ve averaged about 30 players for all three sessions.”
The Louie Tonkin effect on Bahrain has created a huge buzz around the club, with the man himself believing people are daring to dream anything is possible.
For so long a meandering club living in the shadow of more illustrious neighbours Doha in the Gulf’s western region, the Welshman set about a transformation when he arrived 12 months ago that started to come to fruition by the end of the 2016/17 season.
Bahrain finished third in the West Asia Premiership, winning seven of their 12 games, and gave Abu Dhabi Harlequins a stern test in the final of the West Asia Cup before succumbing to a 31-25 defeat.
Although they failed to lift any silverware, Tonkin insists their season has instilled hope in his players and everyone connected to the club.
“I’ve never seen a more excited group of players,” Tonkin said about the early weeks of pre-season.
“We did well last year and I think it’s given perhaps the guys who’ve been here a long time and not had much success, it’s given them a sniff of what can be achieved if they work hard.
“They’re working their a**** off in the gym right now, some who perhaps haven’t been in the gym before. It’s brought a really good edge to the squad and everybody’s working hard. There’s a real buzz about starting the league.”
Bahrain start their 2017/18 campaign with an eye-catching West Asia Cup final rematch with Mike McFarlane’s all-conquering Quins on September 29 in the West Asia Premiership, and Tonkin revealed his players are working extremely hard during the arduous summer months.
Clubs around the UAE have voiced their collective dismay after Dubai Wasps were forced to fold due to ruinous finances.
Wasps announced a month ago the club’s demise was a distinct possibility due to mounting financial concerns. The loss of major sponsor the Rose & Crown Dubai at the beginning of July set in motion the countdown to other deals being lost, leaving the club with a Dh50,000 deficit heading into the 2017/18 season.
Co-chairmen Laurence Parker and Ben Rothwell sent messages to players asking each to commit to paying a Dh500 membership fee for the coming season by early August, otherwise they felt that calling it a day would be the only option.
Increasingly depleted player numbers in recent years was also a major concern for the club, which has been battling to keep its head above water since 2014 – with players now free to join, and some having already left for, other clubs.
Rothwell confirmed the news on Friday, saying: “We have withdrawn for the 2017/18 season. We will possibly enter teams into the Eden Park 7s and Sharjah 10s as a social side but players are free to join other clubs. Costs are just too high.”
The rugby community rallied round Wasps upon hearing the news, with Sharjah Wanderers chairman Shane Breen fearing Wasps might not be the last club to fall by the wayside in what has been an increasingly alarming season off the field for rugby in the UAE.
“It was a shock to read about Wasps having to call it quits despite knowing for a while they’ve been in trouble,” said Breen.
“With Dubai Sports City closing its doors to two clubs and sponsors pulling back, Wasps might not be the only club forced to close its doors.”
Those fears were echoed by Andy Cole – the chairman of Abu Dhabi Harlequins who themselves lost major sponsor Etihad earlier this summer, putting in doubt the hosting of their mini and youth tournament next season, as well as the supplying of next term’s playing and training kit.
“Of course it’s very sad to see any club fold, but we have seen others go in the past and there will be others in the future,” Cole forewarned.
“There are plenty of clubs where the players can go thankfully but it’s sad for Wasps and the efforts by people to get the club up and running for so many years.”
RAK Rugby counterpart Simon Williams said his team had been preparing to encounter Wasps in next season’s UAE Community League, which is now set to run with 10 teams, while the second tier UAE Conference will run with just nine.
“It’s sad to hear this as we were looking forward to playing them in the Community League. It’s a shame when the financial commitments required to play in a league stop groups of rugby lads playing,” said Williams.
“I hope this isn’t the prelude to other clubs going the same way as diversity is generally good for a local competitive league to prosper. I wish them all the best of luck.”
One positive, according to Jebel Ali Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn, is that Wasps’ demise might strengthen other Dubai clubs who are also going through testing times.
Quinn said: “It’s not great news for the players of Wasps. The only positive I can take from it is that their demise might add a bit of strength and stability across the other clubs. Something has to be done to help clubs as it’s such an uneven playing field of costs and support.”