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.”
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.