After a summer occupied by recruitment, rumour and the revelation that former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips is now a coach here, finally the 2018/19 UAE rugby season is imminent.
And if the previous campaign is anything to go by, we’re set for another fascinating installment of the West Asia Premiership.
The landscape of Gulf rugby was completely changed by the fierce nature of the competition from last year between a new, established elite of Jebel Ali Dragons, Bahrain, Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
It feels like the spark of what was a powderkeg of epic action in 2017/18 has only just gone out – Quins’ utter dominance of two years ago replaced by a symphony of unbridled entertainment and complete uncertainty as to who would win what.
The West Asia Premiership went down to the final game of the season, while Exiles recovered from three straight, early destabilising defeats to their three rivals to enter a four-horse title race.
They actually came out on top overall with two major trophies lifted, the Dubai Sevens and UAE Premiership, while Bahrain won the Asia Cup, a first piece of silverware in eight years.
We should prepare ourselves for the same again this time around, with the usual suspects remaining in the frame – even if there are some doubts as to whether Quins can maintain an all-out assault on all trophies with the continuing difficulties they encounter both on and off the field.
If any club is set up to deal with adversity, however, it is them, led by the stoic Mike McFarlane. Adversity was faced head on when talismanic captain Ben Bolger was forced into retirement on the eve of last season because of repeated concussions.
Three core players of the quality of Brian Geraghty, Willie Umu and Patrick Jenkinson would be missed by anyone and enough to see other teams totally combust. Yet Quins, realistically, should have been crowned Premiership champions.
Only a Herculean performance from Dragons on the final day in Bahrain – a bonus point win claimed in the most arduous of circumstances – denied them.
By the time they faced rejuvenated Exiles in the UAE Premiership final, they resembled a heavyweight boxer out on their feet. They had given their all and had nothing left.
Dragons’ heavy recruitment and the stardust signing of Phillips as coach makes them favourites to retain their crown, while Bahrain and Exiles have retained the core of their squads while adding or welcoming back quality.
Scrum-half Ed Armirtage’s return to Exiles from the UK and UAE winger Charlie Sargent’s from injury cannot be overstated.
The biggest question mark is hovering over Quins, but their resolve and the sheer will of McFarlane might well keep them in the picture.
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.
Abu Dhabi Saracens head coach Peter Henderson says he and his players possess “unbridled determination” to make the best of the situation they find themselves in – negotiating the murky waters of UAE rugby’s second tier.
The capital city side took the decision a few weeks ago to self-relegate themselves from the West Asia and UAE Premierships, and they will play the 2018/19 season in the UAE conference, fielding only one senior men’s side for the campaign.
The club called the decision “responsible and realistic”. It was taken by the club at a committee meeting, with a view to continuing the rebuild after a turbulent few years for the 2015 West Asia champions.
Despite a few seasons of struggle, Sarries seem to have collect themselves towards the tail end of last season and over the summer, with structures put in place both on and off the field to ensure the club has a long term future.
They took the decision to play this term in the second tier in a bid to stablilise themselves, in the hope that taking a step back results in two being taken forward.
“It’s a fresh start for Sarries,” said Henderson.
“New players, a new culture and it’s time for all the hard work to start to come together.
“The feeling to drop down has been met with unbridled determination to make the best of it. Some of our best players who deserve UAE jerseys have the pride and respect for the club and their team-mates to know what we as a club need to do to re-establish Sarries.
“None more so than the captain Jonathon Taylor and vice captain Lucien Ruiters.”
South African flanker Taylor has stuck with Sarries through thick and thin. He is heading into his fifth year at the club and has remained loyal to the Al Ghazal club while others have departed for fresh challenges abroad and elsewhere in the UAE.
Of beginning life this weekend against another side with top-tier experience who’ve fallen on hard times in recent years, Al Ain Amblers, Henderson added: “For us there’s no difference if we were to prepare for a Premiership, West Asia, Conference or Community League game.
“The integrity and passion is always there from a Sarries player.”
The Conference gets under way this Friday alongside the West Asia Premiership, but Henderson insists his and the club’s focus will be entirely on Amblers at Al Ghazal, and not on where the club might end up at the end of the current season should they win the Conference title.
“The players and I demand nothing short of compete commitment to the game this weekend,” added Henderson.
“We’ll welcome Al Ain as we do all clubs who come to Al Ghazal and will show them the respect of a good game.
“Al Ain are never easy. They have the potential to upset any team on their day.
“We respect them immensely and that’s why we’ve worked so hard, especially this past week.
“We want to give our best and give them our best. They have some talented players in the midst and we won’t underestimate them.”