New Dubai Hurricanes captain Dave Knight is determined to see his side sitting back at the top table of domestic UAE rugby.
Canes were kings of the Emirates in 2010/11 when they won the treble – UAE Premiership, Gulf Top Six and West Asia Championship. However a few barren years have since followed. In 2014/15 they finished top of the Premiership, only to be blitzed by Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the final.
Their season then declined drastically . They finished fourth and fifth in the Premiership and West Asia Champsionship respectively last season – and Knight knows that is not acceptable.
“I think one of the main reasons I’ve been selected is I set quite high standards for myself and the team,” said the 26-year-old, who was born and raised in the UAE.
“I’m not one to shy away when I don’t think things are acceptable. Things haven’t been acceptable for the last couple of seasons, we know that. I’m here to win every time I play, it’s the only thing I want to do.”
Openside flanker Knight recovered brilliantly from a serious ankle injury which ruled him out for almost the entire 2014/15 campaign to scoop the club’s player of the season award last year.
He was part of Apollo Perelini’s UAE squad that won Division II of the Asia Rugby Championship in Uzbekistan in May, appearing alongside outgoing Canes captain and close friend Daniel Perry, who voluntarily stepped down after two years.
One major reason for optimism at Canes is the changes the club has made off the field this summer, including announcing an exciting new affiliation with Super Rugby giants the Hurricanes earlier this week.
They have also strengthened their entire core, with former England Under-18s and England Universities player Mike Wernham named first team forwards coach, while Simon Seward will coach the second team and act as the club’s strength and conditioning coach.
Knight is excited about the new changes and believes they were vital if Canes had any ambitions of keeping pace with their rival teams.
“We’ve got a great opportunity to perhaps surprise a few teams who might think we’re on the decline,” said Knight, who is entering into his fifth season with Canes.
“Yes, we finished fourth in the UAE Premiership and fifth in the West Asia Championship (last season), but if you look at results, we were always in games.”
Canes lost 42-36 and 39- 26 to Quins and Dubai Exiles respectively in the Premiership and suffered 47-36 and 37-34 defeats to Doha and Quins in the West Asia Championship, so there is a case to make that Canes are not too far away from the elite teams.
Knight added: “Results can be deceiving. Things aren’t as bad as they seem and people have been working really hard in the off-season to improve the structure and develop the club. There’s been a few key appointments which will make us stronger and on our day who’s to say we’re not going to upset everyone.”
“The changes in the off-season are putting us in a position where we’re as close to being professional without actually paying players and it’s important because other clubs are doing it and we don’t want to get left behind.”
“We want Hurricanes to be back at the top where we’re used to, winning all the trophies. We have to go further. It’s all really positive and I’m really confident things will be in place by the start of the season for a successful campaign.”
Henry Paul is preaching patience as he attempts to return Jebel Ali Dragons to greatness, although the New Zealander is adamant success is very much the end goal.
The 42-year-old touched down in the UAE this week and was straight into action, taking his first two training sessions at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence on Monday and Wednesday night.
Henry, who enjoyed massive success as a dual code rugby international with both the Kiwis in league and England in union, is aware he has a big task on his hands with Dragons, although he insists he is here to get them firing again.
“It’s all about silverware and trying to win stuff. That brings with it a lot of pressure but you play sport to win,” said Paul, who despite an envious career as a player has also earned plenty of plaudits as a coach.
Paul, who was assistant coach to former Wales international Kingsley Jones who led Russia at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, added: “It’s going to be a long road ahead but obtaining silverware is where we want to be. There has to be a final destination.”
With the stature he holds in the world of rugby, it would be easy to expect Paul to charge in and claim he can instantly bring back the glory days for Dragons, but the Tokoroa native is pragmatic.
“I’m not going to say anything about what we’ll do this season – other than we’re going to give 100 per cent,” he said. “I’ve no idea of the strength of other teams so it would be disrespectful to suggest otherwise, especially with the fact the spine of the successful Dragons teams from years ago has gone.
“Everyone is on the same wave- length, everyone wants to get busy and now we’re going to work hard as a team.”
It’s been a whirlwind start to his tenure, especially arriving in the scorching summer, but Paul has been encouraged by what he’s seen at his first week of practice, attended by more than 50 players.
He said: “There’s differing levels of ability. We’re trying to build up some team spirit initially, which is key, and then the quality will come through later. We’ve got seven weeks until our first game and by that time I’ll hopefully get the first team organised into a group of 30.”
Joining Paul’s coaching staff are former Arabian Gulf and Scotland sevens international Jonny MacDonald as backs coach. Ex-Newcastle Falcons player Andy Buist, meanwhile, who played several games for Dragons towards the end of last season, is forwards coach.
“I’ve come in to instill a bit of consistency. We’ve got a proper coaching structure in place this year,” added Paul.
“I know Andy. He’s upbeat, very experienced and I’m relying on him to work on our set-pieces. Jonny is very smart and very keen and although we’re obviously still learning I think we’re seeing some benefits already.”
There had been reports Palmer, Doha coach since 2009, would be on the move following a disappointing season in which they finished third in the West Asia Championship.
There were rumours that several UAE clubs were interested in Palmer’s services, but the Kiwi has decided to stay with Doha.
“I have agreed to coach the team again next season,” said the Whanganui native, who has also been the Qatar national team head coach for the past five years.
Although he will still be in charge, Palmer has lost a handful of star players, including captain Jamie Clarke, Tom Nolan, Dilanka Wijisekera, Tom Booth and star full-back Aaron McLelland, while influential No8 Caine Elisara could also be on the way out.
Doha’s pre-season begins on August 8 and Palmer has praised the structural changes made to domestic rugby in the Gulf over the past month which he believes will result in closer competition in the 2016/17 season.
“We are happy and excited about the new format that we believe gives week in week out tough rugby for all clubs that then culminates in a real finals series,” said Palmer. “We believe it can only help the respective national sides also having tough rugby spread over the entire season.”
Although Doha have competed with the UAE’s best teams in the cross-border Gulf Top Six and West Asia Championship competitions from January during recent years, they have been left under-challenged on the home front where they have played countless fixtures against a small circle of local opponents including Bahrain, Kuwait and Muscat. Doha have dominated the Gulf Premiership, winning three of the last four titles.
Changes to fixtures next season, however, mean they and Bahrain will play the cream of the UAE in the new-look West Asia Premiership from September.