Sharjah Wanderers strolled to a comfortable 34-7 win to open the defence of their UAE Conference crown in fine style against Dubai Sharks.
The hosts put five tries on the board to begin the season with a bonus point win against Sharks, who finished eighth overall last season.
The champions scored 34 unanswered points in victory, Sharks scoring the pick of the tries with a late James Mulhair effort earning them scant consolation.
Sharks defended stoutly throughout and although they rarely looked like scoring themselves, it was through their errors that allowed Sharjah to take a grip of the game.
Former Arabian Knights man Fabricio D’Amico crossed for the opening try from a lineout after eight minutes following a brilliant counter-attack.
A promising Sharks attack broke down with a knock-on with numbers out wide and they were made to pay minutes later when scrambling scrum-half Dave Ermerins scooted over from a ruck for Sharjah’s second try after D’Amico had gone close.
Sharks weathered the storm but they were dealt a hammer blow on the brink of half-time by former player Alex Lewis. The Welsh flanker, making his debut for Sharjah, profited after a defender spilled the ball and he was on hand for a simple score.
Full-back Shane Fowley, an accomplished football and Gaelic football player, stretched Sharjah’s lead when he reached for the line following a good run to bring up their bonus point try before centre Paddy Barcoe sliced through Sharks for a fifth try.
With the scoreline threatening to become embarrassing for the diligent visitors, they finally got on the board with a deserved score right at the death.
It was a brilliant try too, starting in the shadow of their own posts. Winger Jonny Corcoran showed great pace to escape up the Sharjah sideline and, with a defender closing in, he offloaded to Mulhair who went over to give the Sharks supporters something to smile about.
Despite starting their defence strongly, Irishman Fowley isn’t looking beyond qualifying for the Conference Top 6.
“We couldn’t have asked for anything better the first game of the season on home turf,” he said.
“We weren’t worried about bonus points, we’re just worried about the Top 6. I know as champions, all the other teams are going to be looking to beat us, but it was just good to start with a win.
“The main thing was getting back into it. We’ve been doing a lot in pre-season so to get the first win is good. Sharks are a good team, every time we play them it’s always a huge battle.”
Despite the margin and manner of defeat, Sharks coach Adrian Cartwright took lots of positives from the season opener.
“Structurally we were pretty good and defensively we were in the right place, and the communication is there, so there’s a lot of positives,” he said.
“The bottom line was we missed tackles in crucial areas, that’s where they scored and we lost the game.
“I don’t think they created a try, it was more our errors that gave them the opportunities to score and they did that well, so credit to them. But not a disastrous performance by any stretch of the imagination and we can certainly build on that.”
Dragons were minutes from inflicting Wanderers’ only defeat of the campaign in March’s Conference final – only to see victory cruelly snatched from their grasp as Sharjah scored the game-winning try with the very last play of the game.
Dragons were ahead for 73 minutes of the match at Sharjah’s home ground and would have been good value for the win, had they held onto it.
Cameron is refusing to dwell on the negatives though on the eve of a new season, and is instead challenging his team to use the anguish of their final defeat to fire them to glory.
“I think the way we lost in the final has made us more hungry this season,” said the Scotsman. “We went on a good run and played particularly well (towards the end of the season) but I think you have to give a lot of credit to Sharjah.
“They came back and they never gave up. We were 16 points up after 20 minutes and played well. We made some mistakes but our aim now is to go unbeaten. Sharjah are the team we’re after.”
With the pain of defeat still lingering, it’s forgotten just how well Dragons did last season.
Cameron was only appointed head coach in January and he orchestrated a seven-game unbeaten run that only came to an end in the final match of the post-Christmas Conference Top 6 competition.
That result – an 18-3 defeat at the hands of Sharjah – was to prove ominous, although to make the final was impressive considering they finished fourth in the Conference before Christmas, 14 points adrift of Wanderers.
“I joined Dragons in January and we went a really good roll, we won seven in a row until we met Sharjah,” added Cameron.
“The team seemed to rally around me rather than me doing anything specific. It wasn’t the magic wand of Robbie Cameron. The boys just turned up to training and we did exceptionally well.”
In Friday’s other game, Arabian Knights host Dubai Wasps, while two teams expected to compete for the title this year, Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds and Dubai Exiles 2nds, clash at Zayed Sports City.
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.