Winning silverware is always special but becoming double winners in the same year they celebrate their 50th anniversary is particularly memorable for Dubai Exiles.
That rings even truer when you look back on the dark days the club has endured in the last decade – the most barren period in Exiles’ history. For the oldest rugby club in the UAE, it must have been galling to witness their decline, at least in the senior men’s side, during that time. As they had disappeared to dwell in mediocrity, Dubai neighbours Hurricanes, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Jebel Ali Dragons and even Abu Dhabi Saracens – a club only established in 2011 – rose to prominence.
It was around the birth of the UAE’s youngest club, Sarries, that Exiles arguably plummeted to their lowest point. He can look back with a tentative smile now, but it was a moment filled with embarrassment at the time for then newly-appointed Exiles chairman Mike Wolff.
Wolff awkwardly shuffled into Harlequins’ dressing room to regretfully forfeit that day’s game early in the 2011 season because Exiles didn’t have enough players.
“It was the lowest ebb,” recalls Wolff. “It’s been such a journey to finally see it all coming together. It’s been quite something and last season was beyond all expectation.”
The day Wolff forfeited the game against Quins was a significant catalyst for change, even if the seeds of today’s success had been planted previously, with the rise of a productive mini and youth section. As the seniors side slid into decline, the youth section rose from the ground up and is today formidable to say the least. Exiles are currently champions at Under-11, U-12, U-14 and U-16 boys and U-18 girls level.
Academy graduate Charlie Sargent, top tryscorer domestically last season with 19, is a staple part of the UAE 15s and sevens teams. Teenager Tom Stapley, who broke into the first team aged just 17 last year, is currently at Ulster’s academy, while brothers Jordan and Devon Onojaife are both at Northampton Saints.
“Tom was seven when we last won a trophy and off he goes (to Ulster) having now won a double,” said Wolff who, despite being delighted by Exiles’ return to prominence, doesn’t want them to rest on their laurels. “It’s great to win the double in our 50th year but we don’t want it to be the end. The challenge is to go again. I want to win four trophies (this season). We got to the semi-finals of the Dubai Sevens last year and lost to Quins. If we could win that in our 50th year, in a competition we started, I’d be over the moon. We want success in the UAE Conference too. That would be a deep indicator we’re going in the right direction.
“Going into our 50th year having done the double, how well we’re doing with the mini and youth section, we’re in good shape going forward into the next 50 years.”
Plenty is being planned to celebrate reaching half a century, inc-luding a commemorative playing shirt for the 2016/17 season, which begins this coming Friday, based on the club’s very first strip in 1966.
Created by a group of British expatriates who grew tired of the long, hot desert nights with nothing to do, the club’s first match was against the British Armed Forces in neighbouring Sharjah.
A huge plot of land was donated by His Highness, the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, with Sheikh Rashid even becoming club patron. Exiles organised the original Dubai Seven-a-Side Tournament in 1970, which now attracts 50,000 spectators daily.
Their demise coincided with the loss of their Al Awir ground in 2008, taken back by the Dubai government for the construction of Meydan Racecourse. Emirates, who had sponsored the Dubai Sevens since 1986, stepped in to take full control. They were able to fall back on calling purpose-built The Sevens Stadium home since 2009, yet all was not rosy on the pitch.
The 2006 Arabian Gulf Cup and Dubai Sevens double under captain Mike Coxhill turned into a 10-year drought. Prop Kristian Stinson remembers the lows of his early days at Exiles – a move he never thought he’d make, especially as he’d just won the West Asia title with Hurricanes.
“Jan Venter asked me to join five years ago and I said ‘not a chance’,” the Northern Irishman recalls. “I pitched up at the first session and there were eight of us. It was brutal. The club was all about building and we were told we’d have to invest time in it. What’s happened this year is, from day one, Jacques (Benade) instilled discipline and an ethos where you play for each other.
“We’ve all bought into it and become more than just a team. In the dark days we would have crumbled, but now we fight for each other.”
Having sunk into a rut 10 years ago when the nucleus of a hugely successful yet ageing squad disbanded without able replacements, Stinson isn’t worried about last year’s success being a one-off with Benade at the helm.
He added: “Jacques won’t let us lay off, he won’t say ‘well done boys, go and have a day off’, he’ll push us even harder. Because now we’ve got that winning feeling and winning’s a habit.”
“We’ve got a lot to be proud of and celebrate,” added Wolff. “We’ve taken time to get over the negativity of the years before Jan and Jacques came on board. It’s taken time, hard work but it’s pretty impressive where we’ve ended up.”
Having been born and raised an Exile, last season’s triumph was special for Stapley, whose father Pete played for the club before him. “I was born here, been at the club since I was six so to win the double was great,” said the talented centre. “Being 18 I had no idea I would have played as big a part as I did, but it’s been great to do that.”
Despite the excellent work overseen by Benade in getting Exiles a seat back at UAE rugby’s top table, there are many heroes deserving of applause – not least the dearly departed Jan Venter.
Venter returned to his native South Africa a few weeks ago to run a guest house with his wife Theresa near the coastal tourism hotspot of Mossel Bay. The 53-year-old has a lot of happy memories of Exiles, despite the fact his tenure as head coach between 2012-15 was one of the most turbulent in club history.
“We were welcomed in, it was made to feel home. It made settling so much easier,” Venter said of his arrival in 2008. “I would have loved to have been part of the 50th anniversary. It’s a huge milestone for a club in the Middle East.”
Although players like Durandt Gerber shined last season, Wolff singled out behind the scenes contributors Declan O’Donovan, Toby Shore, Duncan Walker, Rob Riding, Gareth Venter, Jenny Luckhurst, Emma Pollard, Dan Garnett and Chris Page. At the end of season club dinner in April, man of the moment Benade thanked Wolff, who homed him for his first three months in the Emirates. That welcoming nature is part of the very fabric of the club.
“There are lots of stories like that, Jan and Gareth Venter welcoming lads into their homes,” added Wolff. “Looking for jobs, they put a roof over their head, food on their table, they do all sorts to assist them. We help players find jobs, we work very hard at that. It’s a big headache but the lads do their bit on the pitch and that’s all we can ask for.”