Winston Cowie has been hugely encouraged by the hunger shown by his Abu Dhabi Saracens players in his first few weeks as head coach and expects the club to be back challenging for silverware this season.
Sarries won the West Asia Cup in 2014/15 but struggled to maintain a challenge for honours last season, trailing in the wake of capital city neighbours Harlequins and double winners Dubai Exiles.
New Zealander Cowie, 33, was appointed as new Sarries coach in July and is excited about the challenge ahead of him.
“We are a couple of weeks into pre-season and there seems to be a real buzz around Al Ghazal,” said Cowie.
“I was more than pleasantly surprised when I met the guys – blokes with strong characters first and foremost and excellent rugby players to boot.
“I have never met a bunch of guys quite like it. Some of them like Jaen Botes, Lehan Koekemoer and Garth van Niekirk have fearsome reputations on the pitch, and rightly so, but they are equally the most welcoming to newbies and the nicest blokes off it.”
Domestic rugby in the Emirates is set to be the most competitive and exciting ever in 2016/17 with the rise of Exiles under Jacques Benade.
Quins ran them close for both the UAE Premiership and West Asia Championship last year and will be desperate to go one better.
Jebel Ali Dragons, meanwhile, have appointed former dual code rugby international Henry Paul as head coach and are expected to be much improved.
Dubai Hurricanes announced a partnership with Super Rugby giants Wellington Hurricanes and should also be revitalised.
With everyone around them making great strides to improve, it is imperative Sarries are not left behind, something Cowie is acutely aware of.
“Among the 50 or so players we are getting to training there seems to be a real hunger to have a big season this year,” said Cowie, who praised the job predecessors Craig Nutt and Stephen Hamilton did as joint player coaches last season.
“There is certainly the experience there. This is the third year the core of this side has been together, with 13 of the players who won the West Asian Championship in 2015 involved and hungry for more.
“Ali Thompson did a great job with them that year and Steve and Craig last year kept us near the top.
“This year the guys want to win once again. We are training very hard but making sure we are having fun and that everyone feels part of the community culture that is Abu Dhabi Saracens.
“We are building nicely towards the club’s first matches on Friday. We will take it one game at a time. What I will say is that our opposition should expect physical matches from Sarries. We will be fit and motivated.
“It’s been great that Adel Al Hendi, one of the UAE’s up and coming stars, has joined us. With the likes of Jaen, Lehan, Craig, Stephen, Rickus Swart and Garth, we have in my view the top players in their position in the Gulf.”
UAE Rugby announced its Elite Player Programme, aimed at identifying and developing future National representative Emirati players.
The primary goal of the Elite Player Programme will be to focus on the development of 25 talented U18 Emirati players every calendar year.
“It is a necessity that these players show strong potential, in skills and mental aptitude, to progress to a higher level, with the ultimate aim being UAE National Team representation on the international stage” said UAE Rugby Secretary General, Qais Al Dhalai.
Apollo Perelini, UAE Rugby’s Head Coach and High Performance Manager said: “In the first year our focus will be the Senior Elite U18’s, year 2 we will widen our reach to Junior Elite U16, and year 3 we will bring in a Junior U14 category.”
“These 3 levels of development will give us a stronger platform to identify and develop our Elite player and provide us with a sustainable future for Emirati players.” added Perelini.
Each year, the group will participate in numerous training camps and focus on age-specific skills and fitness.
A series of fitness tests including Anthropometric measures, straight line speed, lower limb power, agility and VO2 max testing, will be performed by the U16 and U18 groups.
The programme will commence in January.
Adrian Cartwright is adamant his Dubai Sharks side are good enough to earn a spot in the UAE Conference final and a shot at promotion to the UAE Premiership.
Sharks opened their 2016/17 Conference account with a 34-7 defeat at champions Sharjah Wanderers on Friday. Despite the scoreline and creating little in the way of try-scoring opportunities, however, Sharks defended stoutly against a side that won the league unbeaten last season.
In fact, most of Sharjah’s five tries were gifted to them by the visitors, and Cartwright feels there is a lot of potential in his squad.
“The aim for the season is the top three, then hopefully a spot in the playoff final, that’s what we want to be doing,” said the man who took charge halfway through a difficult 2015/16 campaign.
“We’ve certainly got the strength in depth across the club to be able to do that in the Conference. I’m pretty confident that is realistic, certainly for the first team.”
Sharks boast a player base of 150 across their three squads and Cartwright feels with a little more consistency in playing numbers each week, the club has the talent to go far.
“There’s a lot of competition for places,” he said. “We’re struggling in some key positions but I think the strength in depth in the squad is there, and the talent as well.
“We’ve had a pretty good recruitment drive over the summer. We’ve got a great set-up down at Dubai Sports City. There’s a great culture within the club. They socialise together as well as play together.
“When guys come in they settle in quickly and enjoy it and the club’s ever-growing. I think there are 150 players so there’s plenty there, it’s just getting them there all at the same time, that’s the battle. If we can do that then we can certainly compete.
“If I can put out a first choice 15 and a squad of 22 every single week then we would very easily compete. The strength in depth is the priority because the reality is we’re not going to be able to do that.”
It was a tough first season at the helm for a coach who only took the reins having begun the campaign in charge of the second team.
After starting last term with Dan Gawn and Richard Battley in joint charge, Cartwright suddenly found himself landed with the top job after both had to step down due to work commitments.
With that experience under his belt and having been in the UAE a year, Cartwright approaches the new campaign with far more confidence.
He added: “The difficult thing out here is the players are not university boys or locals, they’re pilots, lawyers, doctors, teachers, they’re here for two, three years at a time.
“It’s transient. They’re busy, professional people and they can’t commit to every single week and every single training session because they have jobs and families.
“The knock on of that last year was that we didn’t put out the same 15 at any point in the season so we didn’t have that consistency of structure.
“In terms of the level of rugby we play, I think we have some pretty talented individuals, but structurally everyone seems to have the same problem.
“What I’ve tried to do is develop a structure the club plays. It’s pretty basic so as long as everyone understands it, it should work, and hopefully that will offset the problem a transient society brings.”
Rather than being deterred by the margin of defeat to Nic Walters’ side, Sharks’ performance encouraged Cartwright.
“There were a lot of positives,” he said. “Structurally we were pretty good and defensively in the right place, and the communication is there, so big positives to take away.”