Following a difficult summer in which they changed coaches and saw a number of talented Fijians cherry-picked by rival teams, Amblers began the season with a heavy 45-3 defeat to Abu Dhabi Saracens in the West Asia Premiership.
In the wake of that defeat, the Garden City club have been caught up in an underage player row with the game’s governing body, the UAE Rugby Federation.
The dispute revolves around teenagers Jayden Bell and Sunia Laladidi who both featured in Friday’s season opener without the club having gone through the correct process to register players under the age of 17.
A UAE RF statement read: “It came to the attention of UAE Rugby that Al Ain Amblers were in breach of UAE RF Competition Regulations. To play in any senior/ adult competition a player must be 17-years-old or above, with a fully completed dispensation form, signed off by the UAE RF.
“If an under-age player plays adult rugby without completing the above process and obtaining union approval, the player and the club for which he/she has played for will forfeit any matches that the player was involved in and may be liable for other sanction(s) as determined by the UAE RF.
“The dispensation form for Jayden was received Wednesday prior to the fixture, to which communication was made to Rocco (De Bruyn, Amblers director of rugby) to inform him that as per the form, it must be submitted 15 days prior to the fixture in which the player intends to play and he was not eligible to play the upcoming weekend. For Sunia no dispensation form has been received at all.”
Amblers said they did not wish to comment on the ongoing matter. Chairman Sean Emmett said: “The UAE RF has made their decision and Al Ain will accept the decision of the governing body.”
The defeat now reads as an Amblers forfeit and instead of a 45-3 loss, is now 20-0; a less heavy defeat for Amblers while Sarries have seen 22 points essentially erased from their points difference.
Off the field he’s a typical down-to-earth, affable Fijian who earns a normal living as a financial consultant – but on the field Willie Umu’s been savagely terrorising UAE defences for nearly two years.
The man mountain is an imposing figure when he steps onto the turf for Abu Dhabi Harlequins and has been a key part of their free-flowing offence since arriving in the UAE in November 2014.
He was instrumental in a 56-17 win for Quins against Sri Lanka’s Kandy earlier this month, a result that was enough to see Quins pick up the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League trophy, the first piece of silverware of the season.
Despite a destructive display, Umu was softly spoken and laughed loudly after game when asked why he seems so angry on the pitch yet is so smiley off it.
“I’m not really an angry guy, it’s just something I have to do,” Umu says. “That’s my role for the club, get us front ball, and if that’s what I can offer for the team then that’s what I’ll do, my best, 100 per cent.”
Umu, 27, has been a real find for Quins, brought to the club by former player-coach Jeremy Manning after they played together for the Blenheim-based Central Blues in Manning’s native New Zealand.
Umu, a financial consultant for Prosperity, lived in the Land of the Long White Cloud for seven years, previously playing for Woodlands in the prestigious Southland region.
His kiwi adventure came off the back of playing for Fiji at the 2008 IRB Junior World Championship in Wales – the first annual international competition for Under-20 national teams.
Umu had only just arrived in the Emirates on the latest leg of his career in 2014 but wasted little time making an impact as he helped Quins reclaim the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens.
It was a title they retained last year, but the centre is hoping to win all four trophies Quins are competing for this season.
He admits he and his team-mates are still hurting from finishing runners-up to Dubai Exiles in both the West Asia Championship and UAE Premiership in 2015/16.
“Yes, we’re hurting. We’re desperate to win all the titles,” said battering ram Umu.
“At the start of the season our goal is to win the four competitions that we are in. We were disappointed with our draw against Exiles (23-23 in Champions League opener). Hopefully it goes according to plan.”
Having won the curtain-raising Champions League title and begun their West Asia Premiership campaign on Friday with a 35-13 victory at Dubai Hurricanes, Umu believes Quins are in good shape to put the disappointment of last season behind them.
“I think what Mike (McFarlane, head coach) did with the club, starting pre-season early, it was a lot of hard work but I think it will help us,” he said.
“It’s already showing, but there is still stuff to work on. I think the last six weeks we were training has really helped us. This weather is pretty harsh on us so it was really good that we started pre-season early and in the summer.”
Umu has been joined by a raft of fellow Fijians this summer with Quins raiding rivals Al Ain Amblers for a few of their stars.
Esekaia Dranibota, Emosi Ratuvecanaua and Sirilo Laladidi have all been plucked from the Garden City and Umu believes the new recruits are settling in well.
“It’s still hard to acclimatise, even for me having lived here a while now. I keep telling the new boys it will take 10 years to acclimatise here,” joked Umu.
“The young boys from England and three Fijians from Al Ain have blended in and I know from speaking to them that they’re enjoying it.”
Umu will qualify for the UAE in November 2017, and national team coach Apollo Perelini will surely be keeping an eye on such a talent.
The man himself though modestly brushed aside the suggestion that he could make a second international bow.
“I haven’t thought about it, I’m just loving playing for Quins,” he said. “I haven’t thought about anything like that and I haven’t been approached but we’ll see how it goes next year.”
The scoreline reads victory, but Dubai Exiles will not be winning more silverware this year with performances like this.
This display was littered with handling errors – things simply not evident as Exiles stormed to the West Asia Championship and UAE Premiership double last season.
The humidity and rustiness can be put forward only so far as excuses – but head coach Jacques Benade was cutting when he said his players simply failed to live up to their own standards.
“We can’t be happy with that,” said the South African. “We have standards, and this is not how we want to play rugby. Any ball we had we just turned it over. Luckily their forwards were tired and they’re not the Doha of old. Last year those boys would have put 40-50 points on us and that’s what I told the boys, they were lucky.”
Benade’s frustration was only added to when talisman Durandt Gerber was taken off in the second half with a dislocated shoulder that could see him sidelined for more than a month.
“Du doesn’t look good with his shoulder,” added Benade. “That could be three to six weeks so other boys will have to step up. We’ll see our real character now and how good we are and what they can do without him.”
Aaron Palmer’s visitors were bright from the start and took the lead after just six minutes through winger Jonny McMullan. Two Gerber penalties put Exiles ahead and they opened up a gap at the interval thanks to some good fortune and a brilliant piece of ingenuity from South African centre Clint Berkenshaw.
Berkenshaw hacked forward after capitalising on a Doha error and made metres before flipping a brilliant no-look pass behind him to Gerber who sprinted in for a fine try.
Ed Armitage scored a second try after the break but it was far from vintage from Exiles.
Palmer lost 17 players over the summer and his trip east was made harder when two players were turned away at the aiport.
“We lost two at the airport with visa issues so it was just the luck of the draw,” said the New Zealander. “I know it would be a hard task to come here and beat the defending champions, but I think we saw plenty of positives.”