Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Bahrain and Kandy will contest the third installment of the Western Clubs Champions League next month – although Quins chairman Andy Cole revealed the defending champions nearly pulled out as they couldn’t afford flights.
Quins won the second version of the tournament – which has pitted various champions of Asia rugby against each other as a curtain-raiser for the new rugby season since 2015 – last summer.
Quins qualified as runners-up to Dubai Exiles in the 2015/16 West Asia Premiership and proceeded to defeat their rivals as well as the Sri Lankan champions in the pre-season showpiece.
It proved to be the first trophy of an unprecedented quintuple in 2016/17 for the Zayed Sports City-based outfit.
Louie Tonkin’s Bahrain have qualified for this year’s tournament after finishing runners-up to Quins in the West Asia Cup, while Kandy will feature as champions of their own league.
There is a twist to this year’s competition, with games being played in two countries. Two will be played in Sri Lanka, with Quins hosting Bahrain.
But travel costs almost prevented Quins from entering, revealed Cole.
“We had to reschedule the Champions League matches as we couldn’t afford the flights to defend our title,” said Cole of Quins, who are still without a title sponsor for the new season after a three-year deal with airline giant Etihad expired earlier this summer.
“Etihad managed to get us good rates if we changed dates and Bahrain are playing both matches away which allows us to take part.”
Quins and Bahrain will kick off the tournament at ZSC on September 8, with Quins then travelling to Sri Lanka for the second game a week later against Kandy on September 15.
Kandy will also host Bahrain on the final weekend of the tournament, September 22, which is the day the 2017/18 Gulf rugby season kicks off in the UAE.
“We are excited to get back together on the field,” Quins coach Mike McFarlane said, looking ahead to the Asia Rugby-organised tournament.
“We will be using the games to get game time and look at players in different positions and in different combinations. It’s a great way of getting minutes under the belt and be firing for the opening game of the Premiership.
“The players know there is fierce competition for places and the hard work over the next couple of weeks will all be in an effort to grab a starting jersey. The players know nobody has a shirt, it’s the ethos we’ve instilled, so every session is 100 per cent.”
Bahrain’s entry is more new ground for the club and director of rugby Tonkin, who transformed the West Asia side into a new force in the Gulf in his maiden campaign.
He will be using the tournament as a warm-up to the new campaign but admitted his team will be going out to win it, as well as get one over on Quins – who beat them 31-25 in the West Asia Cup final.
“We were absolutely delighted when Asia Rugby contacted us and said we’d qualified as West Asia Cup runners-up,” said the Welshman.
“It’s great news for us. It’s an opportunity for us to play some new opposition in Kandy. It is tough on us having to travel to two games but it gives our squad an opportunity to get used to travelling away.
“We have to travel to the UAE for all our away games next season, which is tough, but prepares us. It’s also a chance to expose ourselves to expose ourselves to a good standard of rugby.
“We’ve watched some Kandy games, they have big crowds and it’s their national sport. I went out there this summer on a veterans tour and I was hugely shocked and surprised by how big rugby is out there. So we’re really excited about going there and playing against the Sri Lankan champions.
“It will also be great to play Quins again, because they beat us three times last season. We’ll be rotating the squad over the two games to get us ready for the West Asia Premiership, but we do want to win it, to measure ourselves early against the best team in the Gulf.”
Former Dubai Wasps chairman Craig Gibson is saddened by his old club’s demise and feels their 2015 relegation from the UAE Premiership might well have been the beginning of the end of one of the region’s most popular teams.
After a tumultuous summer, Wasps took the tough decision to bring an end to their seven-year existence earlier this month – citing a lack of investment and depleted player pool as the two main reasons.
That tough call might well have been coming as long as two summers ago when the UAE Rugby Federation re-structured the league pyramid system, resulting in a relegation Wasps ultimately never recovered from – with financial woe ensuing.
“My reaction is that it is a sad time for UAE rugby as a whole, and perhaps indicative of a need to evaluate the structure of rugby in the UAE,” said 32-year-old Gibson, also a former Wasps hooker.
“With hindsight perhaps Wasps’ relegation in 2015 was a tipping point for the club.
“Operating at a financial loss, as senior men’s amateur playing squads often do, losing players to other clubs and having to attract a new type of playing squad to rebuild the club, the challenge was grand.
“In the summer of 2015 the UAE RF reformatted the UAE league structure and relegated Wasps who finished bottom of the Premiership table that season.
“The relegation cost us our main sponsorship late in the off-season, leaving little time to secure a new primary sponsor, and the lost opportunity for further sponsorship was compounded by a slow regional economy.”
Gibson stepped down as chairman that fateful summer, with the club having been run for the last two years jointly by co-chairmen Laurence Parker and Ben Rothwell.
And the Scot praised the duo for dragging Wasps through the really dark times which included finishing 10th of 11 teams in last season’s UAE Conference – which in turn yielded a last-place finish in the season-ending Bottom 5 competition.
“No longer being a Premiership club and losing our major sponsorship deal required us to review our clubs’ objectives (in the summer of 2015), I was no longer best placed to help Dubai Wasps navigate the changing landscape of UAE rugby and deferred to Laurence and Ben to take the reins,” added Gibson.
“I think they have both done an excellent job in running the Dubai Wasps as an aspirational and social rugby club, but the prohibitive costs of independent senior rugby in the UAE and a country saturated with rugby clubs competing for a relatively small number of senior players has unfortunately caused them to fold the club.
“The saddest thing about Wasps folding is the number of players who no longer have a club to play for, although I hope many of the players find another club to continue playing the sport.”
Although the curtain has been brought down on a club formed in 2010, Rothwell admitted Wasps do still hope to enter teams at the popular Dubai Sevens, Eden Park and Sharjah 10s tournaments this season.
Gibson is happy with that and also reflected on happier times for the club.
“I was lucky to be involved as player and chairman of Wasps previously when we competed in the Premiership, won the Gulf Conference and had a major sponsorship deal which briefly shone an international spotlight on rugby in the UAE,” he added.
“I was also fortunate to help our senior ladies section expand, with many matching their male counterparts in winning international caps for the UAE, being selected for UAE north representative rugby, reaching Dubai Sevens Cup final and winning the Budapest 7s tournament in 2015.
“I’m also delighted to hear the club plans to reconvene at local and international sevens and 10s rugby competitions each year.”
Abu Dhabi neighbours Harlequins and Saracens could become even closer this season with the possibility of a groundshare at the city’s national cricket stadium suggested.
Abu Dhabi Cricket (ADC) acting CEO Matt Boucher has floated the idea with both sides facing issues with their current pitches.
The future of Sarries’ home games next season was thrown into jeopardy when Al Ghazal Golf Club was closed at the beginning of the month. Quins, meanwhile, are also thought to be weighing up the idea of switching homes due to rising costs at Zayed Sports City – with pitch hire costs exceeding Dh700,000 last season.
Sheikh Zayed Stadium – which hosts UAE and Pakistan international cricket – was handed over to the Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC) in March and Boucher admits the organisation is open to the idea of hosting both Sarries and Quins matches in the future
“We’re fully supportive of Harlequins and Saracens and the brilliant job they’ve done for rugby in Abu Dhabi so if they wanted to come to us or if there’s an opportunity to come then we’d be open to discussions,” said Boucher of a facility that aims to become more all-encompassing for sport in the capital.
As part of the redevelopment of the Khalifa City-based stadium, two FIFA standard football pitches are being built on land outside the stadium, which will be used as training pitches for teams attending December’s FIFA Club World Cup – including Spanish giants Real Madrid.
“At the moment we’re thinking of them as just football pitches, not rugby-based solutions for Harlequins and Saracens, but of course we’re in contact with them.
“We know from the media reports and talking to them they have availability. We will continue to talk to them and we have done a deal with Sarries for them to train on the premier ovals throughout the summer.
“We don’t have plans as yet for a third or fourth pitch or a designated rugby pitch at the moment but I don’t think that’s too far away. Once we start evaluating that cost and if we have some commitment to the costs from clubs to come to Abu Dhabi Cricket, then we can look at that.”
Boucher admits both ADC and the ADSC have been in contact with the capital’s two clubs and although neither club are likely to start the season using the Sheikh Zayed Stadium facility as their own, that could quickly change, with the pitches likely to be ready by September or October.
He added: “Not yet. There are plans to build more facilities, not a rugby specific pitch and currently nothing is contractually signed for them to be here, but we’re keen to keep the door open for them, and any other clubs.
“We have some football clubs contractually signed for September and if we can build a commercial relationship with them for a year, two or three years then we’ll definitely present that to the board.
“I haven’t spoken to Quins personally but our team has. I don’t know whether they’ve signed up again to Zayed Sports City, there’s a long term relationship there. We haven’t signed any agreement but nothing’s off the table, let’s put it that way.”
The UAE will also host the 2019 Asian Cup and Boucher admits a multi-sport facility has long been in the pipeline, although he denied that the cricket stadium facility would act as direct competition to Abu Dhabi’s premier sports facility, Zayed Sports City.
“We’re great friends of Zayed Sports City,” added Boucher of Quins’ home for the last seven years.
“Our new headquarters are there so it’s not a competitive facility. They’ve done a great job with their pitches and they’re full. If there is going to be some overflow and we can fill that capacity then we’ll welcome the opportunity with open arms.
“One of the main sports council mandates is to get people fit and healthy and off their sofas and playing sport. You see this throughout a number of areas.
“We were handed the day to day management in March from the previous administration. They did a great job before but it was very cricket focused.
“Now we have two football pitches, floodlights going on the ovals. We’re looking at five-aside football, changing the academy, bringing in more nets.
“It might sound a bit like a press-release but we’re trying to create a world-class sporting hub for multi-sports and something that’s not overpriced. It’s a fantastic facility and as Khalifa City grows I think this will become more of a hotspot.”