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.
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