Heavyweights Doha face a trip into the unknown Friday as they travel to new entrants Al Ain Amblers for their opening West Asia Championship assignment.
The Qataris head into this year’s event as one of the favourites. They finished top of the 2015 Gulf Top Six (GT6) league table, were narrowly beaten in the West Asia Cup final by Abu Dhabi Saracens and won all seven matches on their way to the recent Gulf Premiership title.
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The Amblers sit bottom of the incomplete UAE Premiership after a tough start to life in the top flight. But Doha boss Aaron Palmer was taking nothing for granted.
He said: “To be fair, I am not too sure what to expect from Al Ain. We have never played them before as a first team.
“Looking at their results during the UAE Premiership, they are coming up. They haven’t had the greatest of results, so we are confident as reigning Gulf Top 6 champions. We are searching for the win. That said, we are playing up at Al Ain where it is never easy.
“We are expecting a very tough game.”
Doha edged out Sarries in the GT6 and suffered a heartbreaking 26-20 loss to them on home soil in the West Asia decider in March.
Palmer insisted he was operating with a clean slate rather than dwelling on the past. He said: “That could be a motivating factor, but we haven’t played on it at all. That was last year.
“We have a totally different squad now because of the transient communities out here. We won the Gulf Top 6 league and lost the final.
“That was a totally different competition.”
The main factor which could damage Doha this weekend is the difficulties of travel within the Middle East, with visa problems often impacting squad selection.
“The unknown is a big factor for us,” Palmer said. “We do not have any intelligence on Al Ain.
“We know they are passionate at home and will have a stronger squad, than if they were away. It isn’t a worry but we have highlighted those facts in our preparation.”
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.
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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.