Luke Stevenson feels Abu Dhabi Harlequins may take a bit of time to hit their stride this season but he thinks they still possess a squad capable of adding to the incredible five-trophy glut of 2016/17.
Quins claimed the holy trinity of Gulf rugby silverware by hoisting the West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership and Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens, while also adding the West Asia Cup and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League crowns.
Their historic haul all started with Champions League silverware 12 months ago. And even though fly-half Stevenson expects Quins to come under fire from the likes of a resurgent Dubai Exiles, Jebel Ali Dragons and tomorrow’s opening Champions League opponents Bahrain, he insists his team remain strong.
“We’ve got a good set of lads so hopefully we’ll go alright. I think a few other teams are looking really strong this year, so we’ll just see how we go,” said Stevenson with cautious optimism.
He has a right to be cautious. Not only was Quins’ incredible quintuple unprecedented, but their summer has been littered with financial issues off the field, while key trio Brian Geraghty, Willie Umu and Patrick Jenkinson have all departed to follow new paths.
Crafty centre Geraghty and all-action flanker Jenkinson were Quins’ two standout stars last term, while Stevenson knitted most of everything good the club did on the field together.
And with the majority of players only recently returning to the capital city following their summer breaks, Stevenson feels it might take a while for the Zayed Sports City men to get up to full speed.
He added: “The boys are looking good, we’ve got big numbers down at training but we’ve had the majority only get back in country in the last week or so, so we haven’t had much time together.
“There’s been a good core about over the summer but lads have just been coming back gradually, as I said we’ve only had a full set here the last week or so.
“I’m expecting Bahrain to be decent so we’ll see how it goes (tomorrow).”
The Champions League is essentially a pre-season warm-up and Quins coach Mike McFarlane, like counterpart Louie Tonkin, will be using it to test combinations and player fitness – but that will not mean glory is sacrificed.
“It’s great to be back and we’ve got tremendous numbers and competition for places across the club,” said an upbeat McFarlane.
“The games will be a fantastic opportunity for the players to gain minutes and practice putting our patterns and systems into play whilst players push to secure a jersey for the opening West Asia Premiership game.
“We will look at players playing in different positions and combinations whilst striving to perform at the highest possible level at this stage of the season.”
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Louie Tonkin is aware his Bahrain side will be far from the finished article when the Gulf rugby season returns tomorrow, but he is nevertheless aiming to take an early opportunity to lay down a marker for 2017/18.
Bahrain visit Abu Dhabi Harlequins at Zayed Sports City tomorrow evening looking to dethrone Mike McFarlane’s men after they won the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title this time last year – a triumph that kick-started an unprecedented haul of five trophies in 2016/17.
Long term the aim of both clubs will be the West Asia Premiership which kicks off on September 22, but Tonkin insists they aren’t coming into the curtain-raiser to simply make up the numbers.
“We are going to be rotating the squad over the next few weeks and giving opportunities to payers who have worked hard all summer but we do want to try and win games,” said the Welshman.
“We know how good Quins are. We know they’ve lost some good players but they’ve also recruited some good ones as well. They’re always going to be a good side, well coached and well drilled, so we know it’s a huge challenge. And that’s something we’re hugely looking forward to.
“Obviously it’s preparation for the West Asia Premiership but we’ll focus on this tournament for the short term and getting as much out of it as we possibly can.”
Tonkin has been busy off the field during the summer strengthening both his playing and coaching squad.
He revealed Bahrain won’t be at top gear during the Champions League but his focus is more on monitoring how his squad improve on the specific areas his has targeted over the off-season.
“We’re really excited about this game. The squad have been training pretty intensely now for the last six weeks and we’re integrating the new players in,” added the 34-year-old.
“We’re perhaps not the finished article yet and I’m sure mistakes will be made but as long as we can see improvements in the areas where we have been working on in the summer we’ll be happy, and hopefully the result will look after itself.”
All players who earn the honour of wearing the famous gold jersey never forget their Test debut.
But the Wallabies’ modern Mr Perpetual Motion, and now captain, Michael Hooper, will never forget his – for very different reasons.
It was in Newcastle back in June 2012 against Scotland.
“I remember the build up more than I remember the game itself,” recalls Hooper. “I played a handful of minutes, 10 or 11 at the back end. (It was actually 15 minutes, coming on for Tahs team-mate, Dave Dennis.)
“It was such a quick turnaround. It was Super Rugby two days beforehand and it was a Tuesday night match before we went into three Wales games.”
But what really sticks in Hooper’s mind were the conditions, which were euphemistically described as “atrocious”. It was more like playing in a cyclone – gale force winds, rain and bitter, bitter cold. So cold that flanker David Pocock was diagnosed with hypothermia after the match.
The Scots must have felt right at home.
“We turned up to Newcastle the night before,” continues Hooper, “and waking up the next morning and then just hearing this storm is on the horizon. This one-in-tenyears storm is coming and it’s coming on the night I’m making my debut for the Wallabies!
“I’m sitting on the sideline with a good mate of mine Nick Phipps and just seeing lashings of rain coming over the side of that Newcastle stadium and just thinking, ‘What is going on?’”
What was going on, was Scotland making better use of the conditions, battling to a shock 9-6 victory over the hosts, with scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw landing a penalty goal in the 80th minute to edge the Scots home.
“It was a tough initiation to the international scene but one that I won’t forget that’s for sure,” says Hooper ruefully.
At least he wasn’t freezing on the sidelines: “ASICS have got good jackets, so we were looked after.”
It’s perhaps surprising for someone who made such an inauspicious start to his international career that he has gone on to become one of the first names on the Wallaby team sheet.
Hooper has appeared in 69 of the 75 Tests the Wallabies have played since that night, starting 64 of the matches with just five coming off the bench. That’s not how it must have seemed it would play out, shivering on the bench that night in Newcastle.
“Rugby is a subjective game,” muses Hooper, “and I think at all ages, whether it’s the top level like us or down in age group levels, you’ve got to be picked by a coach at some stage.
“So all you can do is your perceived best and put yourself out there. And that’s what I’m thinking about doing, and continually trying to do.
“You always want to keep pushing yourself to become a better player and I think about becoming a better player a lot and how I can do that.
“All you can do is keep doing your best. Be happy with what you think your best is and putting that out there – so I give myself the best chance to be selected.”
Hooper has certainly done that – and in August when Stephen Moore announced he would not be continuing in Wallaby gold next year, the 25-year-old from Sydney’s northern beaches was coach Michael Cheika’s obvious choice to take over as captain.
He had already served as skipper for 13 Tests back in 2014 when Moore was injured, has the respect of his team-mates and is consistently among the Wallabies’ best performers.
He also showed he can be strong in a crisis. In 2014 Australia was wracked by crisis after crisis (when isn’t it?), when team-mate and good friend Kurtley Beale was suspended for sending offensive messages to then business manager Di Patston.
The drama then escalated when coach Ewen McKenzie resigned amidst rumours he had an improper relationship with Patston. Hooper was forced to navigate the most difficult path – respectful of McKenzie and supportive of Patston without throwing his friend under the bus.
The then 22-year-old managed it, mostly. After all that drama is he still enjoying his rugby?
“Look I love it, I really enjoy it,” he says, “and I just want many more opportunities in the jersey and to create special memories.”
Unfortunately many of the memories the Wallabies have created in recent seasons have been painful ones. Last year they lost nine of the 15 Tests they played and were blanked 3-0 by England at home, and the All Blacks.
This year hasn’t been much better, losing to Scotland at home and already twice to the All Blacks, although there were signs of improvement in the second Bledisloe Test in Dunedin where Australia lost 35-29.
This weekend they face a must-win Rugby Championship fixture against the Springboks in Perth, where the Wallabies are expecting a protest after the axing of the Western Force. Did I mention crises?
“We were talking about this the other day and rugby is such a rollercoaster,” acknowledges Hooper, “there’s a lot of lows in there. And why everyone does it and why people in Australia love the game is because the highs are so good – so good – you just keep chasing them over and over.
“And yes I’ve been through tough times as a player, which makes the really good ones all the more sweeter. You invest so much of your time and give up a lot of things because you love it so you want to see it be better and you want to experience those really good things.”
The thrill of playing for your country is something Hooper says he will never lose.
“I’m in a very fortunate position,” he says, “I get to turn up for work every day and you are with a bunch of blokes who think pretty like-minded and do something you’re pretty passionate about.
“I’m very lucky, very lucky – and you just want to keep chasing those highs because you know they don’t just affect you – they affect a lot of people as well.”
The fans in the stands for starters – and the dwindling numbers of supporters elsewhere. Hopefully the weather will also play its part this Saturday, unlike that night in Newcastle five years ago.
AROUND THE FRINGES
— Qantas Wallabies (@qantaswallabies) September 4, 2017
Working with a sports psychologist this season
We have been working with a leadership coach – a ‘personal developer’ is the term he would probably appreciate more. He’s given myself and others in our team some great little tips and tricks on how to become better people first, and that in turn makes us better leaders.
The responsibility of working with new players coming into the squad
For people who have been in the Wallaby fold for a while – and it is a new group, a lot of new faces – it’s about setting an example, setting a training standard which is indicative of a Wallaby or national set-up.
There are differences being in the Wallabies compared to Super Rugby. To being away from home, even training away, you’re in a camp environment pretty much the whole year. So there are challenges that go along with that.