Mike McFarlane admits he has been “blown away” by all the messages of congratulations after bowing out as Abu Dhabi Harlequins head coach following an unprecedented three-and-a-half year period of success.
The Englishman’s scintillating run as Quins boss came to an end last month when the club announced he had returned home to the UK, believed to be for family reasons.
It brought the curtain down on a glorious tenure for Quins in Middle East rugby, with McFarlane overseeing a period of unparalleled dominance after taking up the position of head coach in the summer of 2015.
“Obviously the club means a tremendous amount to me and I’ve been blown away from all the messages I’ve received recently,” McFarlane told Sport360.
“From playing to coaching I have fantastic memories on and off the pitch.”
McFarlane – a former Quins player who was forced to retire after breaking his leg for a second time in September 2013, in only his second game back following an initial 15-month layoff – instead turned his drive to coaching, and how it paid off.
Under previous coach Jeremy Manning – a former Munster and Newcastle Falcons full-back – Quins won the UAE 2014/15 UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens double. But it was under McFarlane that the club were truly launched into orbit, winning another eight trophies under the Englishman.
It was a galaxy inhabited solely by them in an unfathomable 2016/17 campaign in which Quins won the quintuple – the West Asia Premiership and Cup, UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League.
The grip on the quintuple was stubbornly relinquished in a highly-competitive 2017/18 season, encapsulated by the fact the West Asia Premiership title was only wrestled from their grasp on the final day by Jebel Ali Dragons who pulled off a miraculous bonus point victory away in Bahrain.
They retained the Champions League crown and lifted the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup. And even though Bahrain usurped them as Champions League winners this season and they suffered defeat to Dubai Hurricanes at the Sevens, McFarlane still leaves the club well placed – they have a 19-point lead over Dragons atop the UAE Premiership.
To put McFarlane and the club’s feats into context, Quins have won 10 of 18 trophies on offer in Gulf rugby in the previous four seasons – 10 of 20 if you include the two claimed already this season (the two titles in 2014/15 were achieved under Manning’s reign).
Quins have been fortunate to have McFarlane, who introduced a deep-seated culture of hard work and success that filtered down to all levels throughout the club.
But the departing coach admits it is he who has been the lucky one. “I’m lucky the committee gave me an opportunity at such a young age but I’d like to think I’ve repaid their faith with the senior section in a great position in UAE and West Asia with an embedded philosophy, structure and organised set-up,” added McFarlane.
“I transformed the club, but there was a revolution where three things helped to stimulate the progress. The club had a very ambitious, supportive committee led by (chairman) Andy Cole, a culture which I took time to embed through meetings with all seniors and continued integration, and the final piece was getting the best people in the right positions.
“The likes of Chris Kitchen as strength and conditioning coach and Paddy Hegarty at Vogue Fitness. I’ve always said how lucky I’ve been to be able to call on the expertise on the medical side from Patrick Milton, and bounce ideas off and observe sessions from top quality coaches such as Alistair Thompson, Rory Greene and Simon Baker.”
Of course, all the hard work and dedication paid off, with the trophies pouring in. “Winning trophies. I’m not going to hide it. I love winning as everyone does,” he added.
“Sharing the shed song with the boys is the most satisfying reward after a hard week of training and especially with a bit of silverware at the end. It doesn’t get better than that. It was a hard slog in all honesty even though it may not have always looked like that from the outside.”
And of course, the glorious 2016/17 campaign is unlikely to be repeated in UAE rugby for a long time – if ever.
“It was amazing to work with so many different players but if you want to talk about winning trophies, the 2016/17 season was beyond any expectations and we set them high,” McFarlane continued.
“It still amazes me now. It’s probably the most competitive the league has ever been. There were four or five very strong teams. To win every trophy at first team level is mind blowing.
Blown away by all the kind messages, articles, tweets and words. It's been a privilege and an honour to go on this epic journey with @Abudhabiquins I've learnt an incredible amount and shared countless, fantastic memories with amazing people. #oneclub #Quins pic.twitter.com/NcVXReKM8m— Michael McFarlane (@mike11085) 23 January 2019
“To share that success, feelings and memories with close friends like Ben and Sam Bolger, Phil Abraham and Luke Stevenson was very special.”
Asked for the key to his success, McFarlane added: “I guess for me it’s walking the walk. I had very high expectations of the boys and expected them to have the same of me for my sessions. It’s surrounding ourselves with the best blokes who buy into the culture.”
McFarlane enjoyed Christmas at home with his wife Mandy and daughter Madison, as well as the extended family, before taking in one final piece of UAE life, the golf at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at the beginning of January.
Now it’s onto greener pastures, although whatever McFarlane does in the future, it’s sure to still be on a rugby field.
He added: “The future for me, I have some fantastic opportunities coming up starting with Las Vegas 7s. Then I have a brilliant job lined up to start in August where I will get the chance to start the next journey.”
Jonathan Davies is expected to captain Wales in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash against Italy.
Regular skipper Alun Wyn Jones is set to be on the bench in a much-changed Wales team.
Head coach Warren Gatland will name his line-up on Thursday, with Wasps flanker Thomas Young poised to make his Six Nations debut in Rome.
The 26-year-old Wasps flanker, whose two previous caps were gained on tour against Tonga and Samoa in 2017, could make Wales’ matchday 23 following last week’s fightback victory over France.
Wales have a 31-man playing group at their Nice training base, and the likes of Young and Leicester back Jonah Holmes – a Test debutant earlier this season – might be involved in Rome.
The 24-19 win against France last Friday – secured after wiping out a 16-point interval deficit – was Wales’ 10th successive victory.
And if they beat Italy for a 13th time on the bounce, it will equal Wales’ all-time unbeaten record of 11 Tests set between 1907 and 1910.
Young, son of Wasps Rugby director and former Wales prop Dai Young, has been among the Gallagher Premiership’s strongest performers this season.
And the Stadio Olimpico encounter is likely to offer him an opportunity of leaving an impression early in World Cup year.
“He has been a consistent player,” Wales assistant coach and forwards specialist Robin McBryde said.
“He is a consistent performer for Wasps every week. He’s playing in a league where there are big men week-in, week-out, and the intensity is there.
“He’s had several man-of-the-match awards. In defence he makes intelligent decisions of when to compete for the ball, and in attack he links up with the backs. He is doing that here as well.
“Our training is a bit different to club level – the intensity and metres covered is up – but he has dealt with it.
“It is an opportunity for anyone down here to stake a claim and make a name for themselves. If anyone gets the opportunity, they have to take it and make the most.”
Wales again trained in glorious Cote d’Azur sunshine on Tuesday, and McBryde added: “It’s very reminiscent of Llandudno, so I feel at home!
“It has been good to recuperate after a tough match last Friday night. You couldn’t ask for better surroundings.
“But we have to be aware not to slip into holiday mode. We’ve got some hard work to do before Italy.
“Everybody realises the importance for the first two games and the momentum it can create by getting positive results.
“We can’t rest on our laurels. Italy are a tough nut to crack, and we have areas to improve on from last Friday.”
Gatland is keeping selection cards close to his chest, but it would be no surprise to see changes being made in the starting XV and on the replacements’ bench.
“Italy will be buoyed by the last 15 minutes when they came back strongly against Scotland (last Saturday),” McBryde said. “There wasn’t a lot in the game.
“They showed how dangerous they can be in attack against Scotland. They are comfortable at lineout time, so it will be a big test for us.”
Revitalised Dubai Exiles are heading into the lion’s den of Bahrain this weekend intent on “keeping the season alive” amid a resurgence in fortune.
Jacques Benade’s men leaped back into the top four last weekend with a gritty 32-27 triumph in the Dubai derby with Hurricanes at an emotionally-charged Sevens Stadium.
With West Asia Premiership dreams dashed a long time ago in light of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Harlequins being streets ahead of the rest this season, Exiles, Jebel Ali Dragons and Canes have long been locked into a battle to make the end of season play-offs for the West Asia Cup – which has become a coveted major trophy in the last three years.
Victory over their famous foes a week ago saw Exiles leapfrog Canes and Dragons into third spot, with just four points separating the trio.
Louie Tonkin’s Bahrain are on the cusp of claiming the title as they sit nine points ahead of second-placed Quins, but Exiles’ all-action Northern Irish lock Stephen Ferguson is relishing his side’s trip west.
“As you know, Louie has his boys well drilled and Bahrain at home are class,” said Ferguson, whose side have been back to something approaching their best in recent weeks after a season plagued by crippling injuries.
“The boys are excited to get over there and play in front of the biggest crowd of the season. We have some big boys back and are confident going over there that we can take something from the game.
“We always back ourselves and the last month we have been back playing rugby in patches like the days of old. If we can play 60-80 minutes of rugby like that then we’d be laughing.
“All that matters now is staying in the top four in both competitions and keeping the season alive with loads of silverware up for grabs.”
Exiles have won three of their last four games and even scored a shed load of points in a 57-31 defeat to Quins on January 11.
They came through a tough test last week against Mike Wernham’s Canes – with both sets of players paying tribute to Lourens Oberholzer, one of the Canes’ founding members in 1999, who had passed away at the end of January.
Ferguson added: “Last week was a cracker at The Sevens, the kids from the HSBC youth tournament stayed and the crowd was unreal, it was emotional as a Canes member recently passed and we had a minute’s silence. A great touch from all.
“The game was tough but someone had to win, another 10 minutes and it might have gone the other way. All credit to Canes, some thumping tackles and great tries scored.”
Despite the fact his side have one hand on the Premiership trophy – Bahrain would be crowned champions with any sort of win against their visitors and anything other than a Quins victory at Dubai Eagles – Tonkin is not planning a victory parade.
“We need to win the next two games. It’s very important for us to secure first place so we can secure home play-off matches,” said the Welshman.
The two sides played out a ferocious contest last March when Tonkin’s side survived a late fightback from Benade’s men to clinch the West Asia Cup – a maiden trophy in eight years – with a 47-25 triumph.
“It was a great game and a great occasion for Bahrain RFC – but speaking honestly everyone knows that they didn’t come to us that day with a full team which was disappointing,” added Tonkin. “We know they are a much stronger prospect this week.”
In other games, Quins will realistically look to cement runners-up spot and a home cup semi at Eagles, while Dragons and Canes meet in an intriguing encounter at The Sevens – both sides need victory to enhance their chances of finishing in the top four.
20:00 Dubai Hurricanes v Jebel Ali Dragons
17:00 Bahrain v Dubai Exiles
19:00 Dubai Eagles v Abu Dhabi Harlequins