Mike McFarlane is facing the biggest challenge of his four-year tenure in charge of Abu Dhabi Harlequins, but neither coach nor his players are backing down.
The task at hand for Quins is stark, trying to remain competitive or even relevant amid a raft of departures and financial instability over the course of the last 12 months.
Lynchpin Ben Bolger was lost to enforced retirement on the eve of the 2017/19 season, while star players Willie Umu, Brian Geraghty and Patrick Jenkinson departed for pastures new.
Quins suffered but were still fighting on all fronts for silverware last season – thanks in part to their tremendous club culture and “one club” ethos instilled by McFarlane since he took on the reins from Jeremy Manning in the summer of 2015.
But more goodbyes and retirements over the course of the summer have rocked Quins further, and their famed resolve will be severely tested in 2018/19.
“We know each game will be a big battle and we will take each one as they come, planning carefully and going through our meticulous processes to give the players the best chance of performing on the day,” said McFarlane.
This summer has seen long-time club captain Phil Abraham hang up his boots as well as UAE stalwart Phil Brady.
Pieter Kilian, Alfred Ries, Tom Brown, Gerrit Visser, Jona Marshall and Joe Teasdale are also among the departures from Zayed Sports City.
But fears that Quins may completely fall away from any discussion involving silverware were allayed in recent weeks as they thrashed Sri Lankan champions Kandy 57-7 in the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League encounter in early September.
They lost in the showdown with Bahrain last weekend, although the meagre six-point gap in the scoreline suggests Quins will still be there or thereabouts this season.
First up for Quins is a repeat of last week’s contest with Bahrain as they welcome the West Asia Cup winners to the UAE capital on Friday for the West Asia Premiership opener.
Louie Tonkin’s side won 27-21 in Saar a week ago, a result which denied Quins a third Champions League title in a row.
“Bahrain, as they did last week, will provide a stern test. However, I expect to see the players display progress based on factors we took away from last week as a learning curve,” added McFarlane.
“It’s going to be an incredibly competitive league as ever, there’s no doubt about that.
“We are still looking to integrate new systems and structures and I’m sure it will take a further few games to utilise and refine them.
“The players have been fully committed and training hard and that’s all I can ask of them with a great buzz around the squad demonstrating once again the healthy culture we look to breed.”
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Change is inevitable in such a transient place like the UAE, but Jebel Ali Dragons will be hoping things stay pretty much the same after a return to prominence and more importantly success in 2017/18.
Dragons, back to back treble winners in domestic rugby in both 2012/13 and 2013/14, won their first piece of silverware in four years last term – lifting the coveted West Asia Premiership title.
They did it in dramatic fashion too – needing a bonus point win from a daunting trip to Bahrain on the final day, Dragons did just that, winning 36-32 in Saar to prise the title away from defending champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who had secured a routine 55-3 win over Dubai Eagles.
Times change though and Dragons are no different, with a heavy player recruitment drive over the summer, as well as the small matter of Premiership-winning coach Henry Paul moving on and being replaced by another former high-profile ex-professional – former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips.
There may have been a heavy influx of both players and staff, which could destabilise the success built by Paul, over the summer, but skipper Ross Samson can only see Dragons getting stronger.
“The changes off the field are pretty obvious in terms of HP leaving and Mike coming in,” said the Scottish No9.
“But we are growing from strength to strength behind the scenes and are the most organised we have ever been. Plus, the kids’ section has quadrupled in size from this time last season, so it’s all positive stuff.”
UAE veteran prop Paul hart has retired, as has fellow Dragons stalwart and second row Joe Cooper – but Dragons have been busy recruiting.
Lawrence Reynolds, a veteran of the Welsh Premiership with Llandovery, Llanelli and Carmarthen Quins, returns having had a brief stint with both Dragons and Bahrain two seasons ago, while former Wales Sevens star Rhys Thomas is also an exciting new arrival.
Versatile back row forward Roger Birkin arrives with experience of English National 1, while Angus Maxfield, an ex-Dubai College pupil, is an exciting prospect in the backs, as is talented Kiwi playmaker Antini Brown.
Long-time Dubai Hurricanes lock and UAE international Daniel Perry has moved across Dubai, while Stew Shaw is a Scotland former age group hooker.
The whispers going around seem to suggest Dragons will come into the season as favourites to retain their crown, but Samson knows they have a target on their backs and the likes of Dubai Exiles, Quins and Bahrain will have some say in the matter.
“I’m sure each team has been working hard over the summer and we expect with the smaller, higher quality league and each team playing each other three times it will test each squad’s strength in depth as physicality and intensity will need to be at the highest level each game week,” added Samson, the former Edinburgh and Newcastle Falcons man.
“Our hopes and aims are to play an exciting brand of rugby and give ourselves the opportunity to win every game we play in, whether that’s our first, second or third teams that we are delighted to be able to field regularly.”
All Blacks-toppling South Africa boss Rassie Erasmus will coach the Barbarians for the first time in December’s clash with Argentina at Twickenham.
Rugby director Erasmus guided the Springboks to their first win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil in nine years with Saturday’s fine 36-34 win in Wellington.
And fresh from that triumph, the former Munster coach has now been confirmed to take charge of world-famous invitational outfit the BaaBaas in the December 1 Pumas clash in London.
“It’s a terrific honour to be invited to coach the Barbarians later this year and it should be a great occasion at Twickenham,” said Erasmus.
“The Barbarians are renowned for bringing together great individuals and the challenge for coaches is moulding them into a team that plays wonderful rugby, which they certainly showed earlier this year against England.
“There’s a lot of important games for South Africa between now and then but the chance to work with a new group and take on Argentina once more will be a great end to the year.”
The Barbarians pulled off a stunning 63-45 win over England at Twickenham in May, and will be looking to conjure yet more free-spirited rugby against the ever-expansive Argentina.
The Pumas produced a historic triumph of their own last weekend, downing the Australia 23-19 in Queensland for their first win on Wallabies turf in 35 years.
Erasmus will already have experienced Springbok stars Handre Pollard, Eben Etzebeth and Tendai Mtawarira in his Barbarians squad for the clash that follows directly on from South Africa’s autumn international schedule.
Australia scrum-half Will Genia has also already committed to the Barbarians line-up, with further big names still to be confirmed.