While on the field rugby in the UAE is standing tall, the game is seemingly being brought to its knees off it – yet Jebel Ali Dragons are refreshingly bucking the recent depressing trend.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins announced earlier this month that the loss of backing from sponsors Etihad Airways leaves them facing a Dh5000,000 shortfall ahead of the new season. The exciting emergence of Dubai Sports City-based Dubai Eagles nevertheless leaves Arabian Knights and Dubai Sharks searching for a new home. And Dubai Wasps are on the cusp of folding due to financial and recruitment struggles.
Yet on the outskirts of Dubai, Dragons are approaching the new season with optimism. Not just because of a resurgence on the field under Henry Paul last season. But also because they are in rude health behind the scenes too.
Dragons announced on Monday that head sponsor Hesco, providers of military-defence barriers, have signed a five-year, seven figure sponsorship deal with the club.
Southern hemisphere rugby-themed restaurant Nezeaussie Grill have also come on board as a new sponsor for 2017/18 while Ro3 and First Resort Global Recruitment continue their support too.
“We are happy that we have managed to secure long term sponsors in an environment that seems to be quite desperate,” said Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn.
“Allowing us to continue to supply a great rugby product, world class coaching, superb facilities and all the other things that traditionally occur in rugby clubs is only good for rugby in the region.
“It’s great that we are secure but it’s incredibly sad to hear that some clubs are struggling, it’s helping no-one having clubs threaten to close.”
Whereas the emergence of Eagles this summer means several clubs in Dubai fear approaches for their players with the likes of free gym membership at DSC, Quinn says Dragons have retained most of their players.
“I think it comes down to smart decision making in the areas that are costing clubs and a very loyal player base,” he said.
“We have not committed to a mini and youth set-up which takes a lot of pressure off volunteers and cash flow so we can concentrate on other revenue streams. These clubs are businesses now, we have to treat them as such.”
JA Resorts and Hotels hold the naming rights to Dragons and for that the club receives facility support from them which they are looking to grow now that they have just added plush new 4G pitches and a new clubhouse for players and supporters to enjoy after games.
Quinn added: “JACOE have laid a new 4G pitch and a wonderful new grass pitch with state of the art floodlights along with a new clubhouse to call home is nothing short of fantastic. We are committed to helping them recoup that investment with contributions to F&B on match days.
“Uncertainty is never something a sponsor wants to hear. The relationship that we have fostered with JA Resorts has undoubtedly led us to where we are today. That decision to move away from the previous situation is paying dividends now.
“Having a head sponsor like Hesco so involved in the club on a day to day level has only strengthened that. Staying true to being an amateur club with big ambitions has been key.”
Jaen Botes is another player on the move from Abu Dhabi Saracens this summer, but whereas others have been chastised for departing, the stocky South African’s move to Dubai Exiles is actually a homecoming.
It is the place where the muscular back row menace cut his teeth as a 15-year-old when he first moved to the UAE in 2004. If you’ve ever come face to face with the burly Botes, it surely won’t surprise you to discover that he has long been a giant among men, featuring for Exiles’ Under-19s in his first season, while he had made his senior debut by 17.
The last decade has seen him make his mark around the globe, including representing the Cardiff Blues, Scarlets and playing for various Welsh Premiership sides after his Dubai Sevens debut in 2007 saw him offered a scholarship at prestigious Llandovery College in Mid Wales – a finishing school for current British & Irish Lions stars Alun-Wyn Jones and George North.
Now 27, Botes is back where it all began and eager to get down to business. Chiefly, causing mayhem anywhere he can find it.
“I’m pretty stoked about the move,” UAE international Botes said of his return to Exiles.
“It’s exciting times moving ahead and I’m looking forward to the hard work and the challenge that lies ahead. I’m excited to get going.”
After returning to prominence with a fantastic West Asia Premiership and UAE Premiership double in 2015/16, last term saw Exiles brought back down to earth with a bump as Abu Dhabi Harlequins swept all before them to win the quintuple.
Exiles slumped to fifth and fourth-placed finishes respectively – hardly the best way to bring up their 50th year – but Botes hopes his arrival can help them get back to winning ways.
“I’m definitely here to win,” added Botes, who was with Sarries when they lifted the West Asia title in 2014/15, although he was ineligible for the final against Doha.
“Everyone knows how dangerous Exiles can be. It’s about winning and getting back on top. With that comes a lot of tension but I’m willing to put in the hard work. Open a new page and keep working hard.
“There’s a few boys that have been there a few years so I’m not going to just step into a position, I’m going to have to work hard. I’ve still got a lot to prove to earn that jersey on a Friday.
“For everyone in the league the main aim is to come out on top. The Quins are a very competitive club but every year clubs are taking a step up and it becomes more competitive each year. Hopefully the hard work will pay off and it will be a good season.
“The main aim for me is to focus on key areas where I can improve and take it from there. Work on my own game and hopefully that will be of benefit to my new club.”
After that euphoric triumph with Sarries three seasons ago, the following two campaigns have been something of a different story for the Al Ghazal club, who finished rock bottom of both West Asia and UAE Premiership in 2016/17.
While with Sarries he has floundered, Botes has flourished at international level, making his UAE debut on the Asia Rugby Championship tour to Malaysia in 2015, since going on to become a staple part of Apollo Perelini’s XV and sevens squads.
Botes is actually relocating to Dubai with work and he also felt the time was right to move on with rugby too.
“I’ve had three good years at Saracens. I’ve met some good friends and played some good rugby there,” he said.
“The last two years hasn’t really been what we wanted to achieve or what was implemented by Ali (Thompson) at the very start when I came back.
“It was a choice based on me relocating to Dubai and summing up my options. Which club would provide me with the best platform to improve my game. They (Exiles) play the style of rugby I want to play, an open game and I believe it suits me better to join them.
“There was no other choice. The fact that I was there early on plays a part. I love the club. They provided me with a platform when I was younger, allowed me to progress.”
After playing with Llandovery, both for the College and the Welsh Premiership side, Botes moved on to university at Swansea Metropolitan, where he was captain, before a brief stint back home in South Africa and even Qatar, ending with a return to be with his family in the Emirates.
He joins compatriots Durandt Gerber, the fly-half who was in Italy’s training squad for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and head coach Jacques Benade at Exiles, while he is also looking forward to learning from Ireland’s ex-Munster back Denis Hurley, Exiles’ new defence coach.
“I’m a big fan of Jacques’ coaching and excited to see what he brings for me. I’m sure I can learn a lot from him,” added Botes.
“He’s been a coach at a high level and he’ll bring that level of professionalism into the club. He’s already shown that and you can see what he’s implemented. It was one of the main things that attracted me to the Exiles.
“The coaching and the level of detail to the approach from him and the people around him. Obviously Denis has come in and I think he will bring in a big positive too. He’s only taken one session but you can see the level of skill and knowledge he has.
“Anyone who’s played that sort of level for Munster will bring intensity and knowledge. So I’m very excited to learn a lot of new things.
“I’ve asked them to look at my game and see where I can improve, so it will be another learning curve this season. This season is all about on focusing on areas where I can improve. I believe Jacques and Denis can develop my game.
“Everyone wants to be at the top. I think the coaching staff Exiles have will be a good asset for me to move forward.”
Al Ain Amblers will remain in the UAE Conference next season, director of rugby Rocco De Bruyn has confirmed.
The Garden City club dropped down to domestic rugby’s second tier after just one UAE Premiership game last season, a heavy loss to Abu Dhabi Saracens, having been ravaged of their star players during a tumultuous summer. Their fortunes turned throughout the season as they surged from nowhere, qualifying for the UAE Conference’s Top 6. There they won four games to finish top and claim a berth in April’s final, though they lost a thrilling game 31-26 to Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds.
With Quins unable to opt for promotion to the Premiership as their senior team play there, the choice passes to the runners-up, but De Bruyn says the club will stay put for 2017/18.
“We’ll definitely be in the Conference next season,” the South African said. “The ruling would be the team who wins the Conference will be moving up unless it’s a second team like Harlequins.”
Sharjah Wanderers, 2015/16 Conference champions, decided against bridging the ever-increasing gap in quality to the Premiership, having seen Amblers struggle after making the step up.
The UAE Rugby Federation said last summer it would force teams to accept promotion but De Bruyn insists no order has been made.
He added: “Nothing was discussed at the AGM. The UAE RF haven’t told us we have to opt for promotion and we have decided to stay and compete in the Conference again.”