Mike McFarlane expects a “ding dong” battle between two of the four heavyweight sides in Gulf rugby as Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain clash for the right to claim the first trophy of the new season.
McFarlane takes his Quins side to Bahrain on Friday with the winner set to lift the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title – the UAE side are looking to make it a three-peat having lifted the title the last two years.
For home side Bahrain, they will look to add the title to their West Asia Cup triumph from a fine 2017/18 season – a trophy which brought them their first piece of silverware in eight years.
Both sides have beaten Sri Lankan champions Kandy in the first two games of a tournament that has become the traditional curtain-raiser to the Gulf rugby season in recent years – won for the first time by Doha in 2015 and by Quins in 2016 and 2017.
Louie Tonkin’s side won 31-20 in Sri Lanka two weeks ago before Quins – with rumours persisting they could struggle in 2018/19 – ran riot in Abu Dhabi last weekend, crushing Kandy 57-7.
McFarlane and his side will be buoyed by that, but will still head west as slight underdogs for Friday’s showdown.
“I was delighted with the performance last week given the overhaul in playing structure and systems for the season ahead,” said McFarlane, who signed a year’s contract extension earlier this summer to remain in charge of Quins for another 12 months – his future beyond that is unknown.
“This weekend is a huge step up against an excellent, well coached squad who have been together a few years now and are building on great foundations.
“This early in the season I expect it to be a ding dong battle as ever and a great opportunity to get more minutes under our belts in preparation for the league opener next week.
“We have a few injuries and availabilities unfortunately from last weekend, however, we’ve got a squad who have bought into the values, ethos and culture of the club and looking forward to performing.”
After rampaging to the quintuple in 2016/17, Quins were well matched last term – with Jebel Ali Dragons lifting the coveted West Asia Premiership title.
Dubai Exiles also returned to prominence to win the Dubai Sevens and UAE Premiership double, with Bahrain winning the other major trophy on offer, the West Asia Cup.
Tonkin is keen to add more silverware to the Bahrain trophy cabinet, but is more concerned with preparing his players for the following week’s Premiership opener – which will be against Quins in Abu Dhabi.
“There’s a trophy on the line but it’s more about the performance and the win, building winning momentum before the league starts next week,” said the Welshman.
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It gives us great pleasure to introduce our 1st XV Captains who will be leading the team through this year's West Asia Rugby, competitions. - Captain and Centre, Adam Wallace. Vice Captain and Hooker, Lindsey Gibson Vice-Captain and Number 8, Elliot Behan - After missing a large portion of last season through a string of unfortunate injuries, long-standing 1st XV Captain, Adam Wallace returns - refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to lead from the front. - After doing an incredible job, steering the ship last season in Adam Wallace's absence Lindsey returns in the Vice-Captain slot and will aim to bring a sharp edge to our set-piece, whilst continuing to be a menace around the park. - Number 8, Elliot Behan joins these two as a Vice-Captain and will lead up the team's defensive efforts with a focus on ensuring a level of physicality and organisation that teams will always struggle to break down. - Don't miss the team in action this Friday 14th, against the Harlequins - 5PM at Bahrain RFC. - #REDWALL #bahrainrugby _________________ Friday 5PM on Pitch One. - Bahrain RFC v Abu Dhabi Harlequins - Who will be crowned champion of champions? - 📷 For our international supporters, the game will be LIVE STREAMED from our Facebook Page! - Our Match Events are open days! Non-Members are welcome to enter from 3.00PM - 6.00PM for just BD2.
“We obviously want to win the game and it’ll be great if we can get some silverware early on. But our focus is on the West Asia Premiership which starts in a week’s time. We want to win and we’re looking forward to hosting Quins in our first game of the season.
“Obviously it’s a different dynamic for both of us as we play each other in the first round of the Premiership a week later so it’s pretty unique and exciting.
“It gives us both the opportunity to look at each other before the first game. Both squads are focused on this weekend though and getting a result and making a good start.”
He is wary of the threat the travelling Quins pose to his side. “We can’t wait,” he added.
“We didn’t look into their game too much, we just reviewed our own game and going forward. We know it’s going to be a very difficult challenge to what we faced in Kandy, we know it’s going to be a more physical encounter.
“There’s going to be some big, big runners coming at us.”
The club – one of the Emirates’ oldest who established roots in the late 1970s – announced via their Twitter and Instagram accounts on Wednesday that they had taken the “tough call” with a little over a week to go until the start of the 2018/19 season.
It’s a sad state of affairs for a club that celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2017, with chairman Shane Breen revealing the club had lost half of its players from last season over the summer.
Their withdrawal follows Dubai Wasps’ decision to fold on the eve of the 2017/18 season.
Wanderers returned to pre-season training on August 28 and had been scheduled to kick off the new term at home to Dubai Sharks next Friday, September 21.
But they will now drop out, in the hope of being able to rebuild and return next year.
“It’s not been the best day,” admitted a distraught Breen, a Northern Irishman who was born in the UAE and spent his whole life at the club.
“It was a really tough call to make but we had to be honest with ourselves. At the end of last season, we lost over half the squad, mostly due to guys relocating or taking some time away from to focus on other things.
“Every season we would typically see 10-15 new guys joining up but that’s just not happened this year. We’ve had some new boys come along but unfortunately not enough.
“Unfortunately, the Community League wasn’t an option for us either.”
Despite making the call, Breen insists Wanderers will hope to regroup next season and he said the club’s other thriving teams will continue to flourish. The famous red and black of Wanderers will still make appearances at the Dubai Sevens and various other tournaments throughout the campaign.
“The boys are all still committed Wanderers and we’ll do our best to rebuild this year and be back next season,” said a defiant Breen.
“Our ladies are still going strong though and the men’s team as well as the vets and ladies will be in the sevens this year which will be our focus for the next few months.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Wanderers released statements across their social media platforms announcing the news.
“SWRFC are sad to announce that the Men’s XV have had to make the heartbreaking decision to withdraw from this years’ UAE Conference,” read the statement.
“Declining player numbers have taken its toll on the team and the squad no longer has the numbers to compete in this year’s competition.
“We’d like to thank all our members and sponsors for their continued support as we look to stage our comeback next season. This isn’t the last you’ll see of the Wandies men’s team who’ll still be competing in the Dubai Sevens and other social competitions throughout the year.”
Wanderers have been around for almost as long as the UAE has been an independent nation – with only Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Bats (now Harlequins) older.
The club has enjoyed much success in recent years too. Nic Walters led the club to a thrilling UAE Conference title win two years ago – beating Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds in the final play of the game of the 2015/16 final.
After deciding against promotion to the top-flight of UAE rugby, Sharjah struggled a year later before returning to prominence last season as they reached the Conference final yet again, this time on the losing side of some late drama as Dubai Tigers’ sudden death try earned a 25-20 win.
The Sharks defeated Worcester 21-15 on Sunday but had to withstand an onslaught from the visitors in the second period.
Worcester are favourites for the drop this season but have shown that they can mix it with the other teams in England’s top-tier following two narrow losses.
“At half-time we weren’t swinging from the chandelier in the changing room,” said Diamond.
“We just said ‘we’ve started well, let’s make sure we put this game to bed but, if we play like we played, we’ll convert’. What Worcester did at half-time was get their a*** into gear.
“That’s how competitive it is. We made a mistake last week going to Harlequins and underestimating them and got put back on the coach with tears in our eyes, it was that embarrassing – that won’t happen again.
“With Bristol coming up and showing their resolve, the competition’s at a different level.”
Massive shout out to the #SharksFamily, out in full force today. You were the 16th player on that field and we couldn't have done it without you! See you there again in a couple of weeks! 🦈🦈🦈#SharkTime #SharksByName pic.twitter.com/Iy0pwOnwMJ— Sale Sharks🦈 (@SaleSharksRugby) September 9, 2018
Despite struggling in the second half against the Warriors, Diamond believes that they will improve once some of their star players return.
Rohan Janse van Rensburg, James O’Connor, Chris Ashton and Faf de Klerk are all currently out of action, although the latter could return sooner than expected.
De Klerk is currently with the South African national team, who are playing in the Rugby Championship, but may be back early according to the director of Rugby.
“Hopefully (he’s coming back early), that’s all I can say,” he added. “I’ve not got anything concrete but rumour is that he might be coming back earlier.
“We’ve got to weather the storm. We’ve got Van Rensburg unavailable, Ashton unavailable and O’Connor on the way back in the next three or four weeks, so we will be a totally different outfit when those lads are playing.
“We’re putting a squad together, although it might take us a bit longer than I originally thought. We don’t want to be a Blackburn Rovers of 1995 where we’re up and then down, we want to be consistent.”
FULL-TIME | Sale Sharks 21-15 Worcester Warriors.— Worcester Warriors ⚔️ (@WorcsWarriors) September 9, 2018
Warriors pick up a bonus point after an improved second-half showing. pic.twitter.com/asNnhSUOuy
Worcester boss Alan Solomons was annoyed at his team’s performance in the opening period, but the South African thought that the pressure they exerted on the stroke of half-time changed the course of the game.
Solomons said: “In a funny way, although full marks to their defence when they held us out for 38 phases, for the first time they had to work really hard.
“We held onto the ball, which we hadn’t done, and we took that into the second half. I thought that we then had our opportunities to close out the game, particularly at the end.
“Right in the beginning…there were not a massive amount of errors and they were small errors, but the consequence is that they score points from them and also end up getting field position. That was the problem.”