Sharjah Wanderers posted a near-perfect season on their way to winning the UAE Conference last year, but Isaac Porter is adamant there will be no complacency from the champions as they kick off the defence of their crown Friday.
Wanderers won 15 of 16 games in 2015/16 – the one blot on their record a 20-20 draw with Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds in the first-half of the campaign.
The developing rivalry sets an intriguing narrative for the new season. Wanderers and Dragons clashed again in the Conference final in March and contributed to an absolute thriller.
Sharjah fought back from a 16-point deficit and scored a last minute try, John Bracken plunging over the line beyond the 80 minutes to spark wild celebrations as Sharjah won 27-26.
Unlike Al Ain Amblers the previous season though, Sharjah, who have no reserve team, decided against taking the step up to the UAE Premiership.
They begin their defence against Dubai Sharks at their Sharjah Wanderers Sports Ground, the scene of last season’s triumph, and Porter has warned his team-mates an even tougher task lies ahead of them.
“We all can’t wait to get back out, especially going in as defending champions,” said the 25-year-old Irishman.
“I’m sure a lot of the other teams will be wanting a win over us this year, so we know it’s going to be tough. We need to step up our game. There’s no way anyone here is thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park just because we won it last year. We know it’s going to be even tougher this year.”
After coming so close to throwing their dream away in the final against Dragons – the only time they led was after Bracken’s try at the death – powerful number eight Porter is predicting the two foes will be among the main contenders for the title once again.
“I think Dragons will again be fighting us for the title,” said the Courtown native.
“They have a massive squad and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a repeat of last season’s final. They’ll want to win, especially with their numbers in depth.”
As if fending off the challenge from their opponents isn’t enough to occupy them, Porter is conscious he and his side will have to work just as hard to keep their starting positions after a raft of new players arrived at the club over the summer.
“We’ve a lot of new players which is brilliant, there’s so much competition for places,” he said. “Everybody’s on their toes. Training is very competitive and no-one can really afford to slack off because there’s lads ready to take their starting jersey.”
Despite boasting an impressive record and signing off in such dramatic fashion, Sharjah head coach Nic Walters is not content to bask in the hue of their triumph.
Instead, the Welshman is focused on retaining the trophy, even if he’s not looking beyond the visit of Sharks.
“Our first priority is to put in a decent performance in week one,” said Walters. “We have our sights on a place in the (Conference) Top 6, but we have to earn that and we’ll try not to look too far beyond the next game.
“The coming season is a new challenge. We haven’t spoken much about last year’s success. It’s more a case of identifying and implementing steps to raise our game, along with the profile of the Wanderers.
“We’ve retained the majority of last season’s squad and picked up a few new signings who will add some depth.”
Wanderers seem to have prepared well for an assault on their coveted silverware. Last year’s squad has grown from 28 to more than 40 players, with 10 new signings.
The South African full-back was part of the UAE set-up last season that often saw him called away to play for the 15s or sevens teams at the expense of Dragons.
Fourie featured for the UAE in Uzbekistan in May as Apollo Perelini’s men dismantled the hosts and Thailand on their way to storming back into Division I of the Asia Rugby Championship.
However, as the UAE flourished, Dragons floundered. Their unceremonious fall from grace continued as they finished seventh in the West Asia Championship and sixth in the UAE Premiership – earning just five wins from 18 games all season.
However, with former dual code star Henry Paul now at the helm, Fourie believes Dragons can rekindle the fire that burned so bright not that long ago.
“I think we have a good chance this year to get some silverware, hopefully in the club league and sevens,” said 34-year-old Fourie of the club that won back-to-back domestic trebles as recently as 2012/13 and 2013/14.
“There has been good support from everyone at the club and it feels like there has been some fire blown back into the Dragons belly which is nice to see.”
Under the stewardship of Bruce Pendrey last year, Dragons began to turn the tide after a truly woeful treble defence the previous campaign.
With Paul joined by former Arabian Gulf international Jonny MacDonald as backs coach, ex-Newcastle Falcon Andy Buist taking charge of the forwards and former Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Doha stalwart Jamie Clarke also lending his expertise, expectations are understandably even higher going into the new campaign.
“It’s good to have some proper structures in place now with Henry Paul,” added Fourie, who featured as Dragons thrashed UAE Conference champions Sharjah 72-12 last week in a pre-season friendly.
“The trial against Sharjah was good and to see what all the new boys can do. There are a lot of new quality players and recruits this season and this is what we lacked over the last few seasons.
“Pre-season was tough as usual this time of the year but the nice thing about it was that we had enough guys to do some attack and defence drills which helps.
“There is a lot of competition this year for positions and I think that’s healthy. Henry is doing a great job with Jonny MacDonald in selecting the right guys.
“It’s also good to see that some of the old boys are still coming down to training to have a go.
“After a break for EID we will be back into it as we have Bahrain away for our first league game.”
It was an historic moment for the Community League Rocks, more familiarly and affectionately known as the Goats.
James Parker’s side head into the 2016/17 season as proud homeowners, having previously called Sharjah Wanderers’ pitch – some 85 km away – home in recent years.
The home team were held to nil against Conference side Knights, but the fact they were able to host their opponents at all was a leap forward for the club and hard-working chairman Mike Silvester.
“We played on it and the pitch held up well,” said the Englishman.
“We got beat but it wasn’t the point. It was just a case of us playing on there. Hopefully we can now get permission to put some cabins and containers up for changing rooms so we can get changed in air conditioned rooms instead of under gazebos.”
Travelling north to take on the Goats this season will certainly be an experience for away teams.
The unique experience will continue post-match too, where instead of showers, the sand can easily be removed by throwing yourself into the Arabian Gulf 200 metres from the pitch.
“Everyone got the sand off them by jumping in the sea at the end of the game. There’s not many pitches where you could do that,” said Silvester.