Dubai Exiles looked more like champions in the opening 80 minutes of the 2017/18 season than they did in the entirety of the previous campaign when they were actually West Asia Premiership and UAE Premiership title holders.
Jacques Benade’s men ran in 11 tries – eight in the second half – against new boys Dubai Eagles as the new Premiership term opened at Dubai Sports City last night.
It’s difficult for both sides to gauge how their season will turn out on the back of this mismatch, but there were plenty for both Exiles and Eagles to take away from their opener.
Exiles were dominant in the set-piece and look to have rediscovered the desire that was lacking a year ago. Eagles, despite defeat, started brightly and even had the temerity to take the lead against their illustrious visitors. They didn’t lack fight or heart and more time together will yield closer scorelines than this massacre.
“There’s a wee bit more intensity and hunger in the squad and as a team they performed very well,” said a beaming Benade.
“We’re happy because on the first day last year we played Doha and won, but we were poor, we lacked hunger and intensity.
“We didn’t win any lineouts. Today we were dominant in the scrum, we won eight out of eight lineouts and we looked comfortable with ball in hand. We’ve worked hard the last few weeks and the boys have stepped up.
“It’s a good win and we will really enjoy it. I think this season will be the most competitive of the last three years. (Jebel Ali) Dragons are looking really good, (Abu Dhabi) Harlequins, Bahrain too, so I think the teams will be a bit more even and really good fixtures every weekend.”
Eagles’ director of rugby and fly-half Sean Carey will not let himself or his colleagues dwell too much on the scoreline.
“We’ve been six weeks training and to come out the way we did, we were happy with that,” said the former Exiles man.
“It’s mainly down to the set-pieces, that’s where the difference was. We didn’t win one and they won all theirs, and that’s where their tries came from.
“You can’t score if you can’t win your set-pieces but that will come with training and time. We’re quietly confident for the rest of the season but it was good to get an eye-opener. I think Exiles will be very good, they look very strong.”
Carey was the man to score the Eagles’ first official competitive points when he knocked over a third-minute penalty after the hosts flew out of the blocks.
The next 78 points though came from the men in black, though they only led 28-3 at the break. Eagles conceded a penalty try after the brilliant Michael Stubbs’ chip and chase was halted by an illegal tackle. A couple of Durandt Gerber penalties extended the lead and they started to pull away when former Abu Dhabi Saracens and Dragons hooker Gio Fourie burrowed over from a lineout after Eagles were reduced to 14.
Tomas Sackmann charged through before the break and though Eagles might have hoped to fly with the breeze at their back in the second half, they simply nosedived.
There was no way back when Sackmann got his second following a pushover try five minutes after the restart and from then it was a case of Exiles picking off exhausted Eagles defenders in one-on-one situations.
Fourie barged over for his second before substitute Justin Walsh, out of favour last year, made an impact off the bench to saunter through.
David Gairn, another substitute, got across the whitewash as Exiles began to score with every sight of the tryline.
There was an acre of space for UAE international Jaen Botes to cross on his competitive debut – 14 minutes later he’d completed his hat-trick.
In between there were scores for impressive former England Under-18 centre James Crossley and his equally eye-catching centre partner Stubbs
Eagles never gave in and Ross Bailey deservedly got their first-ever try two minutes from time, but it was Exiles’ night and Botes sealed the win with the final score at the death.
Elsewhere, the irrepressible boot of Luke Stevenson secured a dramatic late victory for Abu Dhabi Harlequins as the champions began the season with a thrilling 34-33 victory against Jebel Ali Dragons.
Stevenson held his nerve to brilliantly convert a last-minute try from the touchline to give Mike McFarlane’s men victory against a team who will be hoping to push them for UAE and West Asia Premiership glory in 2017/18. “It was a real battle, end to end stuff,” said Quins’ former Abu Dhabi Saracens prop Craig Nutt.
“It was a good result and Luke kicked everything from everywhere to keep us in the game. It was a real never say die attitude from us but Dragons were good too so it was a good contest.”
Mark Challis scored a brace for Quins, with Andrew Shields crossing as well as Chris Marshall at the death, with Stevenson’s conversion of his score crucial.
Elsewhere, Dubai Hurricanes started the new season with a 28-13 triumph at home to battling Abu Dhabi Saracens. Mike Wernham’s men secured a try-scoring bonus point to start on a high.
“We had seven new boys in the squad and everyone got game-time. It was good to start with a winning bonus point and it’s on to the next challenge,” said Wernham.
It was a day of double celebrations for Abu Dhabi Harlequins after they retained their Western Clubs Champions League title when Bahrain beat Sri Lankan champions Kandy.
Louie Tonkin’s visitors pulled off a fine 24-23 victory at Nittawela Stadium on Friday – a result that saw the hosts fail in their bid to usurp Quins as champions. Sean Wijesinghe’s men had needed to win by more than four points and earn a try-scoring bonus point to draw level with Quins, but they came up short on both counts.
Rich Muncaster got the game’s first try, with New Zealand-born prop Davis Tui doubling Bahrain’s lead. Anurudda Wilwara kept Kandy in touch, although Mark Burnell’s try just before the break made it 24-13 to Bahrain.
Wilwara touched down for his second try and Gayan Weerarathne also crossed to get the hosts within a point, but both tries went unconverted as Bahrain triumphed to hand Quins the title.
Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien has criticised the coaching during this year’s British and Irish Lions tour, saying the team were “overtrained” and should have easily beaten the All Blacks.
O’Brien, speaking to the Off The Ball podcast, said Warren Gatland’s coaching team were “panicking” at some stages in New Zealand and that they may have cost them the tour.
The British and Irish composite side tied the three-Test series 1-1 after they lost the first game, won the second and drew the final encounter in Auckland.
“I’d be pretty critical of (the tour) because I think we should have won the tour and we probably should have won it comfortably,” O’Brien said.
“Looking back there’s a bit of frustration we didn’t get it right over the whole duration of the tour… We can be proud of some of the performances we put in but I think as a player it was probably one that got away from us.”
O’Brien said a triple training session two days before the first Test hurt the Lions’ chances. They lost the tour opener 30-15.
“In the first week we definitely overtrained on the Thursday and maybe the coaches were panicking a little bit about getting the information into us,” he said.
“And I think we did nearly the same thing on the last week… less is more sometimes on a tour like that.”
O’Brien scored a classic try in the first game but he said the tour was “probably one that got away from us”.
“I think there’s a lot of learnings to take from the tour in terms of the coaching set-up as well and from a player’s point of view with how we dealt with things,” he said.
O’Brien added: At the end of the day with the squad we had, I think we should have beaten them, 100 percent.”
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.”