There will be a new team name on the UAE rugby scene next season after Dubai Eagles were added to the fixture list for the 2017/18 campaign.
The team, which will be based at Dubai Sports City, will go straight into the top-tier UAE Premiership and premier cross-border competition in the Gulf, the West Asia Premiership.
The Eagles will join reigning champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins in both competitions, as well as Dubai Exiles, Abu Dhabi Saracens, Dubai Hurricanes and Jebel Ali Dragons in the UAE Premiership.
Eagles will join the same five UAE sides in the West Asia Premiership, along with Bahrain. Doha will not be allowed to compete in the cross-border competition after diplomatic ties with the UAE and several other Gulf nations were severed last month.
The 2017/18 season kicks off on September 22 across the UAE with the West Asia Premiership – set to be run for the second straight season in conjunction with the UAE Premiership – getting underway on that day, with actual fixtures yet to be decided.
The second and third divisions of UAE rugby, the UAE Conference and Community League, also begin that day, as does the Gulf Conference, which features the UAE Shaheen side along with a Bahrain Select team, Kuwait and Muscat.
The UAE Premiership will feature 14 rounds before the play-offs begin on March 23, 2018, with the finals taking place a week later on March 30.
The Conference will feature 10 teams instead of 11 next season, with Saracens 2nds dropping down into the Community League. As is usual the division will operate on a single round-robin format until December 15, after which it will split into the Top5 and Bottom5 competitions from January 12, with teams playing home and away until March 30.
Reigning champions Quins 2nds will be joined by Exiles 2nds, Dragons 2nds and Hurricanes 2nds, as well as by Tigers, Sharks, Sharjah Wanderers, Dubai Wasps, Arabian Knights and Amblers.
With the addition of Sarries 2nds, the Community League will home 11 teams, including Dragons 3rds. They and Sarries are joined by Shaheen, RAK Rugby, Beaver Nomads, Amblers 2nds, Wasps 2nds, Sharks 2nds and 3rds, Knights 2nds and Dragons 3rds.
After a successful debut last season, the finals of the UAE Premiership, Conference and Community League are once again set to be held on the same day, April 13.
Last season’s inaugural UAE Rugby Grand Finals Day was held at Dubai Sports City on April 7 where Quins completed the quintuple as they beat Dragons 30-20 in the UAE Premiership final.
Quins 2nds also took home silverware as they beat Al Ain Amblers in a thrilling Conference Top 6 final. Heartbeat Tigers beat Dubai Sharks in the Bottom 5 final while Dragons beat Quins in the Community League final.
The Dubai Rugby Sevens, meanwhile, takes place from November 30 to December 2 at the Sevens Stadium.
Dubai Exiles have signaled their intent ahead of the new season by snapping up powerhouse Number 8 Jaen Botes from Abu Dhabi Saracens.
The gargantuan South African back-row forward has returned to the club where he spent his childhood, having played mini and youth rugby with Exiles before heading to the UK for university.
Since returning to the UAE in 2014, Botes, 27, has played the last three seasons with Sarries, winning the 2015 West Asia Championship, although he was ineligible for the final in Doha.
He has since gone on to make his UAE debut and become an integral part of national team set-up.
Exiles are in need of an injection of fresh blood after following up their 2015/16 West Asia and UAE Premiership double-winning campaign with a woeful 2016/17. And chairman Mike Wolff is delighted with the acquisition of the fiery and physical Botes.
“I am delighted that Jaen is returning to the Exiles,” Wolff said of Botes, who is relocating to Dubai for work.
“He actually played with us as a mini and youth player many years ago, and went on to achieve great things with his rugby outside the UAE and of course more recently with Abu Dhabi Saracens and the UAE national team.
“We are thrilled to have him joining our men’s squad for next season. He is a formidable leader on the pitch and he will bring passion, dedication and no little physicality to the team.”
Exiles have been busy in the early part of the summer, with former Munster back and one-time Ireland international Denis Hurley brought in as defence coach.
After ceding superiority to Abu Dhabi Harlequins last season, Exiles will be keen to return to challenging for honours in 2017/18.
And Wolff has confidence Botes’ addition will see them return to prominence.
“We continue to build on the solid platform established by Jacques (Benade, director of rugby) and the men’s section after winning the double two seasons ago,” added Wolff.
“Whilst last season didn’t go as well as we wished after Jacques’ barnstorming first year in charge, we remain on a very positive trajectory.
“As well as bringing former Munster and Ireland player Denis Hurley in, we also have some more strong additions to the squad to be announced shortly. In a really competitive UAE Premiership and Conference set-up we are excited and confident about what next season might bring.”
Fellow South African Benade is looking forward to Botes adding more steel to Exiles’ pack.
Craig Nutt insists he did not lead a mass player exodus from Abu Dhabi Saracens and that his move to cross city rivals Harlequins is a decision he took to benefit himself.
The powerful Welsh prop’s departure from Al Ghazal after three seasons was announced by Sarries chairman Jay Danielson last week, the Australian upset that a number of team-mates seemed to use it also as an opportunity to leave.
But Nutt, who featured in 16 games in his debut 2014/15 season in the Emirates while also travelling home each week to fulfill a promise to play for home-town team Bargoed, feels the time was right to make the move.
“It’s about a change. I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into Saracens the last three years and for me it’s the right time for a change,” said Nutt, who also stepped up to lead the team along with Stephen Hamilton in a player-coach role in 2015/16 after head coach Ali Thompson stepped down following West Asia Championship success.
“I wasn’t enjoying my rugby and I have to get back to that.”
Fellow prop Murray Reason, centres Sean Stevens and Garth van Niekirk and fly-half/full-back Matt Hutchings are also reported to be heading to Quins.
But Nutt feels it’s ridiculous to suggest he would trigger a flurry of departures, especially when getting into a side that won every trophy on offer last season will be a monumental task.
“They’ve just come off winning five trophies. I’m not expecting to walk straight into their team,” added the 32-year-old.
“At the end of the day you have to have confidence in yourself to push yourself to get into that squad. I’m not guaranteed to start by any stretch of the imagination. If I have to play in the second team for the first few weeks then so be it.
“I have confidence in my ability to know I can push to get into the first team. It’s fine to start off at the bottom, it’s not an issue. I don’t mind putting graft in as long as I’m enjoying myself, and I wasn’t. When you get to that stage it’s difficult.
“It’s all well and good to say you can do training on your own but I play team sport to be among people. I’m not motivated enough to be in a gym on my own, I need like-minded people around me.
“Having to push yourself to get into the team is what I need, not turning up on the weekend. That is why I moved. I needed more people in training. I’m used to only have two weeks off before pre-season. Here it’s four months then four weeks of pre-season before playing.”
Nutt passes the three-year threshold to be eligible for residency next season and he admits making the UAE squad for next May’s Asia Rugby Championship was also at the forefront of his thinking.
He said: “No-one’s got a right to play for the UAE. I want to be in the best possible position to push to get into the UAE squad. That’s my overall goal.
“I want to be training until the start of the season and want to be back in the condition I was in when I arrived. Looking at the structures in place at Quins, that’s the best possible place for me to be.”
Quins were back in pre-season this week, holding an welcome back session at Zayed Sports City on Sunday, and Nutt said his first impressions were impressive.
“It was very good, professional. Close to what I’m used to in Wales. The Quins set-up, I’ve been very impressed with. I’ve had emails for the last two weeks.”
Nutt’s departure from Sarries has left a bitter taste at Al Ghazal. But after initial uproar, Nutt revealed tempers cooled after a phone call from chairman Danielson.
“I spoke to Jay. I sat Jay down four months ago and told him I was leaving. So he rung me and apologised. For him to ring up and apologise was a big thing,” he said.
“I moved for different reasons. I moved to benefit myself, not anyone else. It wasn’t like I was leading an exodus. I’ve been involved with running that club for the last three years. They were a big part of who I’ve been here for three years.
“I wish them all the best, but it was time for me to move on. I didn’t want it to finish on bad terms. Abu Dhabi’s far too small to be on bad terms, we all drink and eat in same places.”