There’s one trophy metaphorically already in the trophy cabinet for Abu Dhabi Harlequins, but Mike McFarlane has warned his side they face an arduous task to retain all five this season.
In a campaign of historic success for the Zayed Sports City outfit in 2016/17 they won the treble of West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens, while also lifting the West Asia Cup and Western Clubs Champions League.
They retained the latter on Friday without lifting a finger – Bahrain’s 24-23 victory in Sri Lanka against Kandy gifting the trophy to Quins for a second straight year.
Quins were getting their season up and running on the same day with a one-point victory of their own – Luke Stevenson’s 80th-minute conversion earning them victory by the slenderest of margins in a thrilling 34-33 West Asia Premiership opener at Jebel Ali Dragons.
Whereas you can’t learn too much from the first day of the season, McFarlane knows it will be nigh on impossible to repeat last year’s heroics.
“It’s some task,” said the Englishman.
“I’m not saying we can’t do it, I think we’ve got the potential to do it. But I’m not going to sit here and say we will do it. If you look at the caliber of teams now and the recruitment that’s gone on in Dubai and around the Gulf, it’s a high level now.
“As I’ve said previously, every game is going to be a cup final. Teams want to beat us but they’ll have the quality to push us to the bone, as Dragons did on Friday.”
McFarlane described the game as the best he’s been witness to during his time in the Gulf, and he insisted his mind was far from the Bahrain and Kandy clash 3,000 miles away.
Dragons v Quins never fails to disappoint and the standard of game considering, it was the first game, was a credit to all the lads and coaches involved,” he added.
“It was an absolute firecracker. We definitely knew the Premiership had begun. It was nice to get back to it.
“We had the Champions League which was a nice trophy to bag of course but we were still gelling and introducing new systems. But the first Premiership game, that’s where it becomes more real, and I don’t think as strong a game of rugby in the Gulf since I’ve been there.
“It was a tough Champions League this year. The points difference was really close and it was fantastic preparation and it shows the caliber of the tournament, it’s growing.”
Quins travel to Bahrain on Friday for their second appointment of the campaign, and PE teacher McFarlane is happy with the champions’ tough start to the new term.
“The games are coming thick and fast,” he added.
“It will be another cracker. The draw’s come out and we’ve probably got the hardest start if you look at the fixtures but it’s great for us, it allows us to get off to a flyer and the lads are all excited.
“The games were close last year but from the game on Friday the level has jumped again, which is crazy. There’s some fantastic teams and players and it comes down to each game.”
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.”