West Asia Cup holders Abu Dhabi Saracens will be looking to the future rather than reminiscing about past success when the next edition kicks off this weekend, according to joint head coach Steve Hamilton.
Sarries claimed the Middle East’s premier 15-a-side trophy last March after a rollercoaster 26-20 final win in Doha. They begin the defence of their crown at home to Bahrain Friday as the revamped West Asia Championship starts.
“We don’t tend to look at the situation like that,” said Hamilton, when asked about the pressure of being champions. “We take each year and competition on its individual merit.
“But of course, we do take confidence from last year’s success in the West Asia Cup.
“It’s massively important for us to get off to a winning start against Bahrain. We know it is going to be tough, but we cannot afford to lose this game as the competition will be so tight.
“We can expect a really tough match and if we don’t play to our best, we can expect to be put to the sword.”
All six UAE Premiership sides feature in the newly-expanded format rather than in previous years when only the top four qualified for the defunct Gulf Top Six (GT6). They will compete against Doha, Bahrain and Muscat from the Gulf Premiership in a nine-team competition where each meets the others only once instead of clashing home and away.
The winner will be the club that comes top of the league after eight games, rather than the top two playing a decider in the now-discontinued West Asia Cup final.
Sarries claimed an uplifting 20-18 victory in the derby against then runaway leaders Abu Dhabi Harlequins – who sit out the opening WAC round because of maintenance work at Jebel Ali Dragons’ ground – in the final weeks of the first part of the UAE Premiership campaign. With Dubai Exiles also competing fiercely on the domestic scene, Hamilton expected an intense battle.
He said: “We know how tough this West Asia competition is and how well matched all the teams will be.
“Our victory aganst Abu Dhabi Harlequins will really help us going ahead, as we take a lot of pride from our results against the domestic teams. The likes of ourselves and Dubai Exiles have shown how teams can develop and go on to enjoy success.”
Opponents Bahrain ended up bottom of the last GT6, but an improved showing in the recent Gulf Premiership saw them finish second behind runaway leaders Doha.
“Everybody is really excited to get back into it,” said Bahrain back-row Tom Ham. “The points didn’t show very well in last year’s Gulf Top Six, where we lost only one match by more than a 10-point margin.
“We know even though we were bottom of the league that we can compete very well. We have a couple of new players and hopefully we can build on that.”
Stuart Lancaster will not be filling the post of Japan head coach recently vacated by Eddie Jones.
A report states that the former England boss is considering an offer to take charge of the surprise package of the recent World Cup as part of a four-year deal that will encompass Japan 2019.
– #360Rugby: Kvesic the man for England at No. 7
However, it is understood that while a preliminary enquiry over Lancaster's availability was made early last month, the 46-year-old will not be taking any position at the Japanese Rugby Football Union.
The scope of the role was initially thought to include overseeing new Tokyo-based Super 15 franchise the Sunwolves, a job that has since been given to former New Zealand hooker Mark Hammett.
Another ex-All Black, Jamie Joseph, is favourite to take over the Brave Blossoms.
Lancaster stepped down as England head coach on November 11 upon completion of the Rugby Football Union's review into the hosts' inability to advance from the pool stage of the World Cup and he was subsequently replaced by Jones.
The Cumbrian's record during his 46-match reign at Twickenham reads 28 victories, 17 losses and one draw – a win ratio of 60.9 per cent.
In this week’s #360Rugby, Andrew Binner takes in Racing 92’s shock win in France, superlative Matt Kvesic, England’s coaching dilemma and an exciting new era for France.
What is happening in France?
French domestic rugby is littered with the world’s best rugby players, but it is the unpredictable nature of the Top-14 that continues to be its most impressive trait. Their cash-flush clubs are renowned for impressive home records and abysmal away performances but on Sunday under-strength Racing Metro shocked the rugby world by beating Clermont 20-16 at Marcel Michelin.
— EatSleepRugby (@eatsleeprugby) December 28, 2015
In fact, Les Jaunards were lucky to be leading at all, as they trooped into the half-time break with a 9-6 lead. However, tries from Johan Goosen and Henry Chavancy sealed the win for the Parisians, who leapfrogged their opponents into second position in the Top 14. Clearly the mere presence of Dan Carter is enough to put sides off, with the World-Cup winning All Black only required for a short cameo off the bench at the end of the game. The loss for last season’s European Champions Cup finalists Clermont is a hammer blow with the team now laboring in third.
Matt Kvesic is England’s seven in waiting
If appearances are anything to go by, Matt Kvesic will be England’s next number seven. Despite playing number 8 during the World Cup, David Pocock delivered a masterclass in modern openside flank play and Kvesic could be his body double. At 1.88m the Gloucester star is just 4cm taller than his Australia counterpart and boasts exactly the same 104kg weight.
‘It looks ugly, but it’s really correct.” Wayne Barnes on this turnover from Matt Kvesic. Moment of real class. pic.twitter.com/lUrBE26SjW
— Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix) December 28, 2015
This low centre of gravity combined with arm strength that Popeye would be proud of means that the dynamic duo are almost impossible to shift at the breakdown. This week Kvesic was named man-of-the-match against Harlequins in a scintillating 39-39 draw in front of 70,000 fans at Twickenham with 15 tackles and three turnovers. If Chris Robshaw was in any doubt that his days in the England seven shirt were over, he need only watch this game back and keep an eye on the marauding Kvesic.
Alun-Wyn Jones demonstrates class in Welsh rugby
It is no secret that Welsh domestic rugby is on a slight downward curve at the moment, with many top players leaving the country to ply their trade overseas. However the Ospreys’ thrilling one-point derby win over the Scarlets in the Guinness PRO12 not only proved that Welsh club rugby is still very much alive, but that some of the world’s top players still choose the Welsh valleys over the Cote d’Azur.
— Ospreys (@ospreys) December 26, 2015
Former Wales captain Alun-Wyn Jones is arguably the form second-row in Europe at present and looked every inch of it as he led a monumental forward effort in Llanelli. Jones capped his fine performance with a try on the stroke of half time that sees the Ospreys edge closer to the play-offs. The colossal captain is out of contract at the end of this season, but his continued involvement with the region is vital if their small but talented squad is to continue competing for the highest honours in Europe.
Alex King is the wrong choice for England’s backs coach
While Alex King has undoubtedly laid the foundations for a successful career in coaching, he is nowhere near ready to lead an international back division against the All Blacks. A playing reputation as an intelligent and successful 10 combined with coaching stints under Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter have led some to believe that King is ready, but one look at Northampton Saints’ recent try-scoring drought should have Eddie Jones thinking again.
— BT Sport Rugby (@btsportrugby) December 26, 2015
On Saturday, the midlands team scored their first try in four hours en route to a loss at previous basement boys London Irish. Given the plethora of silky, attacking talent at King’s disposal (think Ben Foden, George North and the Pisi brothers), this dearth of points is unacceptable. It will be interesting to see how the former Wasps playmaker will change tactics to arrest this decline in potency, but for now Jones must avoid repeating Stuart Lancaster’s mistake by selecting talent not ready for the big stage.
Guy Noves’ first squad indicates return of French flair
In recent years France have suffered from a severe lack of identity and Guy Noves must now concentrate on re-establishing their exciting, mercurial brand of rugby. Under Marc Lievremont and Philippe Saint-Andre there was inconsistency in selection and performance that, even on a French scale, was verging on the ridiculous.
— EatSleepRugby (@eatsleeprugby) December 29, 2015
Noves has included five uncapped players in his first France training squad, but it is the re-selection of fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc that should have French fans excited for the Six Nations. When the Montpellier man was overlooked for the World Cup, France’s ability to release their dangerous backs suffered a seismic blow, and their game plan became all too predictable. While Trinh-Duc’s selection may represent something of a risk due to his penchant for running instead of kicking, it is this element of danger that France must now harness to reignite their dormant potential.
There is a lot to admire about this clip: From the wonderful running lines of Toulouse, to the bone-shuddering commitment of Toulon’s defence. In the run up to Toulouse’s try Florian Fritz executes a training ground backs move to perfection and shows subtle hands to send Maxime Medard over. Unfortunately for Medard, South African behemoth Duane Vermeulen was not in the mood for making it easy and the collision from his head-on with Medard ensured the number 8 was seeing stars.