Jacques Benade described Dubai Exiles’ 2015-16 double-winning season as “special” but has told his players to forget it and move on.
Exiles ended a barren decade without a major trophy by claiming both the West Asia Championship and UAE Premiership last season in Benade’s debut campaign as head coach.
The new rugby season is set to be the most fiercely contested ever, with the likes of former New Zealand rugby league and England rugby union star Henry Paul taking the reins at Jebel Ali Dragons.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who pushed Exiles all the way last term, will also be stronger, as will neighbours Saracens and Dubai Hurricanes.
The cross-border West Asia Premiership competition, meanwhile, spans the whole season in 2016/17, meaning the UAE clubs also come into contact with Doha and Bahrain earlier than usual.
EXILES EYE TITLE DEFENCE
Benade insists there will be no easy games, although he has warned his rivals that Exiles are even better than last season.
It was a big season last year and I don’t think anyone expected that to happen,” said Benade, whose team open their defence against Doha.
“What happened last year was special but it is over. We started from scratch and are still busy building something special at the club.
“I cannot compliment enough the players’ attitude and commitment and because of that I believe we can go in to the season with confidence.
“We just want to focus on Doha this weekend and then focus on the next game. It is going to be tough but I will say that we are stronger definitely due to our depth in quality of players this year and it was very difficult to pick a team for the Doha game.”
Doha’s Kiwi coach Aaron Palmer looked as if he was off at the start of the summer, but agreed to remain in charge, although it is all change at The Fortress.
A total of 17 players have departed Qatar, including Kiwi full-back Aaron McLelland who was arguably the best player in the Gulf region last season.
In comes Luke Masirewa, who has played for the All Blacks 7s, from Waikato, and Nicky Steyn, a former Currie Cup player for Griffons and the Free State Cheetahs in South Africa.
“We’re at Exiles this weekend and we couldn’t ask for a better start than to face to defending champions on their home pitch,” said Palmer.
“That probably makes us underdogs but you can bet we’ll be up for it.”
QUINS KEEN TO STEP UP
Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who pushed Exiles all the way in the battle for Premiership and Asia glory last season, are determined to go one better this season.
Under Mike McFarlane, they lifted the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title earlier this month, and McFarlane and his men open their campaign at Dubai Hurricanes on Friday.
“I’m more than satisfied with pre-season. The lads are hungry and there’s a real competition for places,” said McFarlane.
“The standard of the squad throughout in its depth is exciting for the rest of the season. Training and game days have been intense. These boys are super coachable, not just super talented, and that’s exciting for me. The whole changing room is full of winners.”
Canes have a new skipper in Dave Knight, who is relishing such a tough fixture to open the new campaign.
“We’ve got Quins first so the schedule could have been kinder but it works both ways,” said the UAE international.
“They’re the team to beat having just won the Asia competition. On the other hand it might be good to play them early. It will let us know where we’re at and give us an idea of what we need to work on to get where we want to be by the end of the season.”
The other Abu Dhabi team, Saracens, have a new head coach in place in Winston Cowie, which should lighten the load having finished a respectable third domestically and fourth in Asia last year under joint player coaches Stephen Hamilton and Craig Nutt.
UAE international Adel Al Hendi, signed from capital city rivals Quins, is raring to go for the trip to Al Ain Amblers.
“I’m pretty excited to have a run as it will be my first game for a while,” said Al Hendi.
“I’m looking forward to chucking on a Sarries jersey, and we’re all ready to go. Training has been class, there’s a great vibe within the team, and hopefully we’ll go out and do the business on Friday.”
CHALLENGES FOR AL AIN
It’s been a baptism of fire for new Amblers head coach Niekie Van Blerk, who replaced Andrew Rouvie in the summer. Amblers won just one of 17 Premiership and West Asia Championship games last season and a season of struggle is being predicted for them after they lost almost all their Fijian contingent.
“It’s been a difficult start, it’s the worst preparations for the new season,” admitted Van Blerk.
“Despite the problems we’ve had people shouldn’t underestimate us. We will be better prepared in terms of structure and discipline.”
The headline acquisition of the summer has been Dragons luring former dual code international Henry Paul to the Emirates.
The former Wigan Warriors, Bradford Bulls and Gloucester star has been at the helm since July and believes it’s the ideal time to come into the club and claims there’s a real hunger to improve after two barren years.
“I think we’ll relish it more because of the tough times, there is an aspect of that,” he said.
“You’d like to walk in and win but it’s going to be pretty hard in such a short time. We’re not professional, we only train two nights a week and sometimes guys can only get to one, so it’s working with that you’ve got, trying to mould it into my system and how can we improve on last year.”
Paul takes Dragons to Bahrain, who also have a new man at the helm in former Cardiff University and Llandovery coach Louie Tonkin.
The 33-year-old Welshman has brought in a raft of new players who he has previously coached, and has spoken previously of his bold ambitions.
“We want to win the league, I’ll make no bones about it,” he said during pre-season.” I want to do very well and I wouldn’t have come out here if I didn’t think that was possible.”
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