As champions you are always there to shot at, but after Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ historic season of success in 2016/17, Mike McFarlane knows there will be extra motivation for opponents to remove them from their lofty perch this term.
Quins won the holy trinity of trophies on offer in Gulf rugby last season – West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens titles – while they added the West Asia Cup and Western Clubs Champions League titles just to rubberstamp their dominance.
Dubai Exiles, Jebel Ali Dragons and Bahrain are likely to be the main pretenders to their throne this season, and McFarlane is preparing for a cup final on a weekly basis with opponents upping their game.
“Every year is tougher with clubs adding high class players,” said Mcfarlane ahead of Quins’ trip to Dragons on opening day tomorrow – a repeat of April’s UAE premiership final which sealed the quintuple.
“Every team wants our scalp so we know every week we face a cup final of sorts. But it’s down to the players to step up and deliver.”
Quins can retain one of their five trophies, the Champions League, if Bahrain beat Kandy in Sri Lanka on the same day as they face Dragons, or if Kandy fail to earn a bonus point win.
And the Englishman says his team are ready to run the gauntlet.
“We’ve had a competitive pre-season with the Champions League, with a lot of players having access to minutes,” he added.
“The players have been working hard on tweaking what we had in place last year as well as embedding a couple of new faces. We are lucky that we have such a great club culture which promotes fierce competition for places across four teams.
“Dragons will be a tough start but the players are physically ready and they know what is expected of them. We are excited to get going.”
Dragons’ South African full-back Ryno Fourie admits he and his team-mates are still hurting from that final defeat five months ago but admits it’s been a hugely positive summer in Jebel Ali, who are expected to progress from an improved 2016/17.
“We still hurting from last season’s final where we came up just short,” said the UAE international.
“Both Quins and Dragons have had a game under the belt and this coming weekend will be another test to come up against the best. I think our coach (Henry Paul) has done a phenomenal job of getting the Dragons back on track again.”
Dragons are celebrating their 25th year this season and Fourie admits it would be nice to mark the occasion with some silverware.
“I think the club is really putting in a lot of effort this year on and off the field to make our 25th year anniversary something to remember,” added Fourie whose side trounced league newcomers Dubai Eagles 59-5 in a friendly earlier this month.
“There has been a lot of new faces from all different levels and the numbers at training have been great so far to be able to put out three full squads again.
“Pre-season has been good for me personally after having a three-month break following international rugby.
“Our game against the Eagles was a good test to see how far we have come from pre-season and some opportunity to excute our new structure and game plans.”
Having won the double of UAE and West Asia Premiership in 2015/16, Exiles arguably endured the most woeful 2016/17 as they slid into mediocrity.
They finished a lowly fifth in the West Asia standings and fourth domestically, but have recruited well during the summer, with talented duo Jaen Botes and Lehan Koekemoer arriving from Sarries, while fromer team-mate Gio Fourie has also finally been prised from Dragons’ claws.
“Our pre-season went really well and I am very exited and can’t wait for the season to start,” said head coach Jacques Benade.
“Players are coming in and all the players from last year worked exceptionally hard and there will be some very difficult decisions made this week to pick the right combinations and starting line-up for Friday.
“We had 38 players traveling to Al Ain two weeks ago (for a pre-season game) and all the players played a minimum of 40 minutes to get that proper first contact session under our belt.
“Some of the new players really impressed as well as our players from the last two seasons. Competition is going to be tough but I am a big believer that good competition will always bring out the best of the players.
“There is a good atmosphere in the squad and the boys are happy where we are on and off the pitch.”
Exiles travel to Dubai Sports City tomorrow to take on Eagles, who are a bit of an unknown quantity having been created a matter of months ago.
“They’re definitely a bit of an unknown team,” added Benade.
“They will be 100 per cent up for this fixture especially playing at home as well. Forget what happened two weeks ago against the Dragons, I believe the Eagles will be a much different and improved team.
“We need to start really well on Friday and play with great intensity and accuracy. We have been working on some new structures and if the players can focus on their jobs and take ownership I believe we will be difficult to beat.
“It’s a long season ahead but it is very important to start well and play some good, positive rugby this weekend.”
Eagles’ landing in the top-tier has been met with skepticism by some, but head coach Pat Benson is not letting anything get him down ahead of a very special day for his side.
“I understand there’s going to be no easy games but I’m very excited for the weekend,” said Benson.
“I’m interested for the boys to have some more game time, especially against an established team like the Exiles. All the teams are established and well run but I’m proud of how the boys have trained and performed so far.
“Some have come from Conference and even Community League rugby but have really put their hands up and we’ve all put lots of hard work in behind the scenes.
The other game tomorrow pits two of the league’s struggling sides from the last two years against each other, with Dubai Hurricanes entertaining Abu Dhabi Saracens.
With Quins, Exiles, Dragons and Bahrain expected to be fighting among themselves for the silverware, Canes coach Mike Wernham will be happy for his side to fly under the radar.
“I hope so. I’ve always loved being an underdog,” said Wernham.
“This league is tough. There’s been a lot of rumblings about other teams, Exiles and Dragons, Quins and Bahrain, I relish that talk because I don’t think anyone expects us to do anything.”
Wernham replaced James Ham halfway through the previous campaign and although the PE teacher received an educational introduction, he feels that with an encouraging pre-season under his belt, Canes are set for a good campaign.
“Last season we managed to turn over two of the final top four, we lost at home to Bahrain and should have won. We lost to Quins by five points,” said head of secondary school sport at Jumeirah English Speaking School Wernham, who believes the club feels more like his now.
“It was a nice introduction, I learnt a lot in my half season in charge. I think the guys did too. We know we can be a good side. We’ve got new players, they’ve trained hard and I do think we’re in a good place.
“When you come into a job halfway through, you’re already dealing with a full season of what’s been done in the past. Mindsets are hard to change.
“I didn’t want to change the world. I saw strengths and weaknesses. Behaviour, consistency and the scrum were issues.
“There’s been some more firm words this summer and it may be the PE teacher inside of me, but the expectations and standards of a Canes player is clear, and the lads know what is acceptable and what’s not.”
In addition to fighting near the foot of the West Asia and UAE Premiership last term, Saracens have seen a raft of player departures this summer, while they were rocked unexpectedly by the loss of their home pitch when Al Ghazal Golf Club closed suddenly at the beginning of August.
There were fears that the club would struggle to maintain one side, let alone a second team, but chairman Jay Danielson and a group of remaining senior players decided to dig in and fight for the Sarries cause – a trait that has been typical of their young existence.
“It feels like a new era at the club, it’s really positive,” said Australian Danielson. Everyone’s digging in. There’s a lot of new faces who are happy to be playing rugby.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces in and they’re bringing down their mates. At every training it seems like there’s a new face and it’s a really good vibe. We have real depth in the backline, more than I’ve seen at Sarries in a long time.”
The tireless work put in over the summer by a clutch of senior players like captain Johnny Taylor, Stephen Hamilton, Phanta Quinsile and Andy Baker has reaped reward, with as much as 60 per cent of the team to play Canes expected to be new arrivals.
“There’s been a big drive over the summer of internal and external recruitment. We’re very excited,” said Danielson.
“it’s a pat on the back for the senior players. There’s been a really significant drive from the senior group who got to work over the summer. They realised we needed to pull our finger out and as a result we pushed hard on the recruitment.
“They went to networking events, Facebook advertising, speaking to people in the bar with their Sarries shirts on, you name it, any way to get people down, and it’s been really successful.”
The head of UAE rugby has warned that the future of the Emirati rugby is in a precarious position even though the number of local players taking up the game continues to swell and has even resulted in an additional team being created for this season.
UAE Shaheen head into their third competitive season in the Community League having built up solid experience in their opening two campaigns, while the hunger for rugby among locals is so demanding, a second team has been established.
Shaheen are sure to gain plenty of experience by being exposed to other Gulf countries this year, playing in the Gulf Conference, alongside Muscat, Bahrain 2nds and Kuwait.
“There are two teams, it’s giving players more chance to play,” said UAE Rugby Federation secretary general Qais Al Dhalai.
“We have a lot of players and the players and coaches asked for this. They want to play more games so we open more doors for them. Two teams suggests numbers are growing. They played last week v Muscat. In the training sessions we have lots of players.
Yet, all is not well. Swelling numbers also brings its own problems, with indigenous players seeking financial gain by continuing along the Shaheen Player Pathway Programme (PPP).
“There are many excuses by the Emirati players and it’s a big challenge to retain them and keep them interested because of soccer, which is not doing any good for other sports,” added Al Dhalai.
“They are offering players money and retainers, but other sports don’t offer that. Rugby is one of the sports players are asking for financial benefit from and we don’t want to go down that route.
“Our idea is that we need to ignite the love of the sport in these players. If we go down the route of subsidising and paying them, where’s the passion and love?
“We can sustain it now but not in the future. In our pool of 50 players currently we could afford to pay them, but what about the future when the numbers grow into the thousands?
“It’s not our priority. We opened the door for them to play in the Gulf Conference and we are pleased by the turnout in training and matches. This is not our way to run the organisation, we will never go that way, because if we do we will lose, we will fail one day.”
In addition to the success of bringing players through via the PPP in recent years, Al Dhalai added that an ‘Elite’ group has also been created this summer, aimed at further developing the cream of the crop among emerging Emirati talent.
It is encouraging that among the swathes of local players, there are enough being picked out as superior talents, which will aid the prospects of Emiratis establishing themselves under UAE head coach Apollo Perelini at senior national team level.
It is the idea of the ‘Elite’ group to feed into UAE Shaheen and the national side,” said Al Dhalai.
“Shaheen has an age group from 18 all the way to 32. The Elite is mainly players 18/19-years-old to feed the national team youth levels, Under-18 to U20 and when they grow they can play for the seniors later on.
“The Elite is the concentrated group of players that Apollo can train for the UAE. It’s a bit higher than the PPP.
“The players who are graduating from the PPP are good players and are staying with us. The proof is that the players in the programme for the last three or four years are still enjoying it. Some new players are leaving but some are staying.”
You shouldn’t be greedy.
After a thrilling platter of finals footy last weekend, Saturday’s semi-finals were a damp squib in both the AFL and NRL with thrills and spills in very short supply. The surprises however continued.
First up in the AFL, Geelong came from nowhere to stun the Swans 98-39 at The G on Friday night.
Sydney will still be shaking their heads all the way to Mad Monday celebrations – that is if they even bother to have them now. For a second year in a row they have looked bound for glory only to fall apart at the crucial juncture in the most spectacular fashion.
Last season it was in the Grand Final where the Western Bulldogs snapped a 62-year drought to kick the last three goals and defeat the heavily favoured Swans 89-67.
This year it was the Cats, who the Swans hammered back in August and who were beaten by Richmond by 51 points last weekend, turning the tables to end the heavily favoured Sydney’s season.
The credit must go to the often criticised Cats coach Chris Scott who completely flummoxed the Swans by moving Patrick Danger- field (below) from his usual role as follower to full forward, where he created havoc for Sydney that spread from their defensive line through the ruck all the way to
their own forwards.
It was a ‘worldie’ from Scott that could have misfired spectacularly, but instead he broke a three-game losing streak against the Swans of 46, 37 and 38 points.
The Swans and coach John Longmire simply had no answer. The game was over at half-time with the Cats leading by six goals and many of the Swans stars like Buddy Franklin M.I.A.
Dangerfield, the 2016 Brownlow Medal winner, kicked 4.3 while Franklin’s meek effort was 0.3. No Swan kicked more than a single.
Scott refused to take the credit for the master stroke explaining the decision to play Dangerfield in attack had been a collective call by
the Cats’ coaching team that was made early in the week.
“You want your best players in the game putting your opposition on the back foot,” said the two-time premiership winner post-match.
“It doesn’t always work that way, but (playing Dangerfield forward) got our guys believing that when we got the ball forward, that we had a pretty potent threat up there.
“It obviously destabilises the opposition as well.”
The Swans’ loss was their first to any team other than Hawthorn since they opened the season 0-6.
Longmire said nothing his team tried seemed to work.
“We had things in place,” he said, “we didn’t get them done as well as what we could have.
“We tried a number of things, we weren’t efficient at getting those things we wanted to get done completed. It was just one of those nights.”
Like last year’s Grand Final.
“Those nights” are becoming a habit for the Swans.
Sydney however will be represented in the final four as GWS turned around a 36-point defeat last week to the Crows to smash West Coast 125-58.
In this week’s preliminary finals GWS will meet Richmond while Adelaide host the Cats.
One thing is certain, unlike last year it will not be a team from the bottom half of the eight taking the flag with the four remaining teams those who finished first to fourth after the regular season.
That isn’t the case in the NRL where the eighth placed finishers, North Queensland Cowboys defeated the fourth placed Parramatta Eels 24-16 to reach the final four.
In the other semi-final Brisbane edged out Penrith 13-6 to keep their season alive, for one more week at least.
Unlike last weekend, which was mired in ‘Bunker’ controversy, the biggest talking points of the weekend were the finals spirit of the Cowboys, who are without their star playmaker Johnathan Thurston, and the injury toll of the Broncos who finished with just one player on the bench.