With the local rugby season upon us we have the lowdown on each team aiming to compete for the West Asia Premiership title.
From the key players to our predictions for the year, we have you covered.
Who do you think will win?
Coach: Louie Tonkin
Home ground: Bahrain RFC
Captain: Adam Wallace
Key player: Elliot Behan
Last season: West Asia Premiership 3rd, West Asia Championship 2nd
Sport360° prediction: Made great progress under Tonkin in his debut campaign and, with new faces arriving and a lot of injured stars returning to the ranks, expect them to be a major contender for trophies
UAE Premiership: N/A
West Asia Premiership: 2nd
Dubai Sevens: Quarter-finals
Coach: Henry Paul
Home ground: JACOE
Captain: Ross Samson
Key player: Matt Henry
Last season: West Asia Premiership 4th, UAE Premiership 2nd
Sport3600 prediction: Came on leaps and bounds last season under Paul and are set to make more strides, with exciting signings said to have arrived. Fell short of silverware last season but 2017/18 could be different.
UAE Premiership: 2nd
West Asia Premiership: 3rd
Dubai Sevens: Final
Coach: Pat Benson
Home ground: Dubai Sports City
Captain: Conor Coakley
Key player: Sean Carey
Last season: N/A
Sport3600 prediction: The new boys are an unknown quantity but it will surely be a season of struggle for them, with their opponents well ahead. Being competitive and earning a handful of wins would be seen as a good campaign for the debutants.
UAE Premiership: 6th
West Asia Premiership: 7th
Dubai Sevens: Pool stages
Coach: Jacques Benade
Home ground: The Sevens
Key player: Durandt Gerber
Last season: West Asia Premiership 5th, UAE Premiership 4th
Sport3600 prediction: Have recruited well over the summer and will be hard-pressed to be as bad as they were last season. Head coach Benade will be upset if they don’t win at least one trophy from the four on offer.
UAE Premiership: 1st
West Asia Premiership: 4th
Dubai Sevens: Semi-finals
Coach: Mike McFarlane
Home ground: Zayed Sports City
Captain: Ben Bolger
Key player: Luke Stevenson
Last season: West Asia Premiership 1st, UAE Premiership 1st, Dubai Sevens winners
Sport3600 prediction: Where do they go after they won everything last year? Surely they can’t be as untouchable as last season. Have lost some key players but undoubtedly remain the team to beat.
UAE Premiership: 3rd
West Asia Premiership: 1st
Dubai Sevens: Winners
Coach: Mike Wernham
Home ground: The Sevens
Captain: Dave Knight
Key player: Josh Elliot
Last season: West Asia Premiership 6th, UAE Premiership 5th
Sport3600 prediction: A perennial struggler for the last two seasons but finally settled under Wernham, who has added structure and confidence. Have their work cut out but are an outside bet for a trophy
UAE Premiership: 4th
West Asia Premiership: 5th
Dubai Sevens: Semi-finals
Home ground: N/A
Captain : Johnny Taylor
Key player: Stephen Hamilton
Last season: West Asia Premiership 7th, UAE Premiership 6th
Sport3600 prediction: It’s been a tumultuous summer for Sarries, but vibes coming from within the club are refreshingly positive. They won’t trouble the top teams but will be happy to be competitive
UAE Premiership: 5th
West Asia Premiership: 6th
Dubai Sevens: Quarter-finals
It might have been a summer of struggle for the UAE’s rugby teams, but Jebel Ali Dragons are firing on all cylinders as they get set for a special season celebrating their 25th year.
They appointed rugby league and union icon Henry Paul as head coach a year ago and he proved to be Dragons’ talisman as the club returned to something approaching prominence in 2016/17 after a few seasons chained and in the dark.
Fellow clubs are struggling; Dubai Wasps were forced to fold due to falling player numbers and loss of sponsors, giants Abu Dhabi Harlequins are struggling to pay pitch fees and for flights to defend their Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title while Dubai Sharks and Arabian Knights have, as yet, nowhere to play. Dragons, meanwhile, are flickering back into life, signing a seven figure, five-year contract extension with sponsors Hesco.
Yet, not so long ago, things weren’t looking so bright. In 2000, just eight years after the club was established, they almost folded – with player numbers down to single figures.
Former Dragons player coach Paul Austin’s villa was the venue for an emergency summit, a rallying call to arms where all club members were called upon to attend in order to thrash out the club’s very existence. Four people turned up.
“Not many people will know that. With training numbers in single figures many wanted the club to fold,” remembers Austin, a Dragon from 1995 to 2007. “At a guess I think the four were Andy Jones, Mike Lalor, Jon Ombler and myself. We decided that we had to move to Division 1 from Division 2 to continue to exist, but with no sponsors or players the future didn’t look bright.”
The foursome’s brilliant solution to secure the future of the club they loved? Lie to the game’s governing body of course, at that time the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union.
“We decided to lie and claim we had 30 players and a large sponsorship deal in the works and hope they went for it,” added Austin. “Luckily they did and we four were promoted to Division 1 for the new season. First up, Abu Dhabi Bats, the league champions.
“Just in the manner I was recruited, we headed to bars and found every ex-rugby player or big-ish bloke we could and got 16 for the Friday game. Amazingly, we drew 3-3 and from there the new era of the Dragons started.”
It’s characters like Austin, Welshman Jones, Lalor and Ombler, club founders John Fish and a man simply referred to as ‘Blaster’, ex-treasurer Keith Byrne, former captain Paul Smith, manager Dave Osseman, Roy Green, who was a chairman who moonlighted as a photographer, Tim Wood, another former chairman, and extreasurer Matt ‘Fester’ Seale that kept Dragons together during their formative years.
They sound like a merry band of loveable rogues, a rag-tag bunch who in the early years were renowned more for their post-game antics and love of the social scene as opposed to their prowess on the field. But those early beginnings forged bonds and spirit. Camaraderie and long-lasting friendships that still exist today and are the foundations the club has built its reputation on.
When Neil ‘Dutchy’ Ver Weij arrived in the UAE in late 1992, his large frame led to Dubai Exiles stalwart Gary Harris inviting him down to training. But when the Dutchman, a talented goalkeeper in his youth, explained to club elders that he had no rugby pedigree, he was told bluntly ‘this is not the club for you’. At that time, Osseman approached Dutchy and pointed to another pitch at Al Awir where Dragons were practicing.
They’d only just formed a proper club earlier that year, while Exiles, the Emirates’ oldest club, were then celebrating their 25th year.
The name Dragons comes from the pub where the club was created by Fish and Blaster – the George & Dragon, in Bur Dubai. Technically, Jebel Ali Dragons are only seven years old as Jebel Ali Resorts & Hotels came on board in 2010 to offer the club its first home ground at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence.<
“We’d go to the George and Dragon on a Tuesday, play some darts and pool. It was a Dragons pub. You knew you’d always bump into some Dragons boys,” said 55-year-old Ver Weij, who has been with the club almost since the beginning.
A footballer by trade who had lived in Iraq and Saudi Arabia prior to his arrival in the UAE, he was very much an outsider. But Dragons has long been a halfway house for players of all ability.
“I grew up in Dubai but was living in Egypt in the early 1990s and only moved back to Dubai in ‘95 to work,” added Austin, 46. “I had not even heard of the Dragons and had planned to attend Exiles training.
Soon after returning to Dubai I headed to the Alamo Bar on a Friday night when I was approached by a complete stranger who said ‘you look like you play rugby’. ‘I do’,
I replied. ‘Well we’ve got a game tomorrow night against Sharjah and you’re in the starting team’, replied the stranger.
“I tried to talk myself out of it but was told I’d be picked up and taken to the game and had no choice in the matter. The next day I made my debut for the Dragons, was named man of the match and from there started 10 plus years at the Dragons including most as captain and three unbeaten years.”
The likes of Fester, Blaster and Austin may have left. But there is plenty of new blood keeping the club stocked with characters who are passionate about maintaining the Dragons tradition.
Dutchy, a long-time coach of Dragons’ third team, was asked by Paul and the players to step up to become first team manager for the new season earlier this summer with local boy Jonny MacDonald taking charge of Dragons 2nds. Stuart Quinn is the club’s new chairman.
Paul Hart is another club legend, still a feature for the first team and the UAE despite approaching his 40th birthday.
His First Resort Global Recruitment firm has played its part in attracting players to the club.
These current stalwarts and others are aiming to help Dragons replicate past successes and scale even greater heights, all the while hoping another emergency meeting akin to the one in Austin’s villa 17 years ago isn’t needed.
“With Dragons we never say no. We always welcome people, everybody’s welcome no matter what level you are,” said Ver Weij, reflecting on that first training session quarter of a century ago.
“We make you feel part of the club. Even if you don’t want to play you can be part of the social scene. It’s one big family. There’s been some great work done behind the scenes, by the likes of Tim Wood the ex-chairman and Mike Lewis. Those boys have kept it together.
“Others like treasurer Ben Pryor, Harty, Quinny, Peter Miller does all the sponsorship recruitment. Without them I don’t think we would still be here, don’t underestimate the work they do.”
Despite being part of the club for 25 years, there was a period in the late 90s and early 2000s where Dutchy stepped away as the playing side of the club became more serious and talented under Jones.
But he returned around six years ago and is now here to stay.
“Rugby is an amazing sport and there’s amazing guys here,” he said. “I want to be here another 10 years hopefully. The club is getting stronger. The steps the club has taken in 25 years is enormous.
“I look back sometimes with my wife and say to her ‘look what we’ve done’. We’ve got the new clubhouse, pitch, trophies are coming back. It’s just not like any other club. We’ve got the real Dragons family feeling coming back.”
DRAGONS’ TIMELINE 1992 Dubai Dragons are formed in the George & Dragon pub in Bur Dubai by John Fish and ‘Blaster’. 1992-2000 Play with Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Ain, Sharjah, Dubai Exiles, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar in the Gulf’s sole rugby league as well as appearing at the Dubai Sevens. 2000 Emergency meeting held to decide the future of the club. The four who turn up lie to the Arabian Gulf RFU, claiming to have 30 players and a sponsorship deal. Promotion is granted and the club move to Division 1. 2001/02 Enter the Gulf League, win their first match v Abu Dhabi, the eventual champions, and finish a creditable third. 2002/03 Win Gulf Cup, second in the league. 2003/04 Unbeaten season, winning Gulf League and Gulf Cup. In Cup final, the Dragons 2nds famously beat the Exiles 1sts. 2004/05 Retain Gulf League but lose Gulf Cup final. Win Dubai Sevens for the first time. 2005/06 Another unbeaten season in 15’s winning both Gulf League and Gulf Cup. 2006/07 Club enter a rebuilding stage with a number of senior players stepping down. Tim Wood becomes chairman. 2007/08 Second team win the Emirates League for the fourth consecutive season. 2008/09 Back-to-back Dubai Sevens winners. 2010 Finally have a place to call home as JA Resorts & Hotels agree to back them, officially become Jebel Ali Dragons. 2012-2014 The two most successful seasons in club history achieved as Dragons win back-to-back trebles of league, Gulf Top 6 and Dubai Sevens titles. 2014-2016 A few barren years, although former dual code rugby star Henry Paul is appointed head coach in the summer of 2016. Ex-Arabian Gulf international Jonny MacDonald, a long-time Dragons player, becomes his assistant. 2016/17 Under Paul, Dragons return to prominence, losing UAE Premiership final to Quins, claiming fourth in West Asia Premiership. 2017 Secure seven figure five-year sponsorship deal with Hesco. Complete ground development, including installing new floodlights, 3G pitch and a clubhouse.
Dubai Dragons are formed in the George & Dragon pub in Bur Dubai by John Fish and ‘Blaster’.
Play with Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Ain, Sharjah, Dubai Exiles, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar in the Gulf’s sole rugby league as well as appearing at the Dubai Sevens.
Emergency meeting held to decide the future of the club. The four who turn up lie to the Arabian Gulf RFU, claiming to have 30 players and a sponsorship deal. Promotion is granted and the club move to Division 1.
Enter the Gulf League, win their first match v Abu Dhabi, the eventual champions, and finish a creditable third.
Win Gulf Cup, second in the league.
Unbeaten season, winning Gulf League and Gulf Cup. In Cup final, the Dragons 2nds famously beat the Exiles 1sts.
Retain Gulf League but lose Gulf Cup final. Win Dubai Sevens for the first time.
Another unbeaten season in 15’s winning both Gulf League and Gulf Cup.
Club enter a rebuilding stage with a number of senior players stepping down. Tim Wood becomes chairman.
Second team win the Emirates League for the fourth consecutive season.
Back-to-back Dubai Sevens winners.
Finally have a place to call home as JA Resorts & Hotels agree to back them, officially become Jebel Ali Dragons.
The two most successful seasons in club history achieved as Dragons win back-to-back trebles of league, Gulf Top 6 and Dubai Sevens titles.
A few barren years, although former dual code rugby star Henry Paul is appointed head coach in the summer of 2016. Ex-Arabian Gulf international Jonny MacDonald, a long-time Dragons player, becomes his assistant.
Under Paul, Dragons return to prominence, losing UAE Premiership final to Quins, claiming fourth in West Asia Premiership.
Secure seven figure five-year sponsorship deal with Hesco. Complete ground development, including installing new floodlights, 3G pitch and a clubhouse.
The standard of rugby being played in the UAE today is improving at an exponential rate. Yet the disparity between where the game is headed on the field and off it couldn’t be more stark.
On it, the game is probably more fast, more furious, more entertaining, more star-studded than it ever has been. Super Rugby it obviously is not, yet it is home to players like ex-Italy A fly-half Durandt Gerber, who was in the Azzurri’s 2011 Rugby World Cup training squad.
Sean Carey, a former Ireland Under-19 international, played for Dubai Hurricanes and Exiles and made his international bow for the UAE earlier this year. Doha lost explosive Kiwi winger Luke Masirewa during the course of last season, recalled back to the New Zealand sevens set-up due to his blistering form in the Gulf.
That’s without mentioning the likes of Henry Paul, Denis Hurley and Apollo Perelini who are all coaching out here now.
The UAE have risen to Asia Rugby’s second tier under former dual code star Perelini’s guidance and stand 72nd in the world – their highest ranking since forming their own union in 2011.
Yet all is not well.
Dubai Wasps, a staple part of the domestic rugby scene in the UAE since 2010, were forced to fold this month. Finally swatted by insurmountable debt.
In truth, they had been on the precipice for a few years, not much having gone Wasps’ way since their relegation from rugby’s top tier UAE Premiership in 2014/15.
Yet, this is far from an epidemic confined simply to the smallest and weakest. Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ struggles this summer show that not even the biggest and strongest clubs are immune.
Quins won an unprecedented five trophies last season, yet that didn’t prevent them from losing Dh500,000 in sponsorship deals, with the severing of ties with Etihad also putting their renowned annual youth tournament in doubt.
The sad truth of the matter is that while the game is getting richer on the field, rising costs for pitch hire and the generally unfavourable economic environment the country finds itself engulfed in, is seeing it plummet new, worrying depths off it.
Jebel Ali Dragons announced last month that head sponsor Hesco, providers of military-defence barriers, had signed a new five-year, seven figure sponsorship deal with the club.
Yet, even if clubs are lucky enough to find a benevolent sponsor, Quins’ troubles prove everything is not quite right behind the scenes – which is worrying if you’re one of the smaller clubs.
“What I can say is that the lack of funds (either from sponsorships or federation funding) is felt and is hurting everyone,” said Al Ain Amblers director of rugby, Rocco De Bruyn.
“The majority of Al Ain expats are working in the government sector and, without big companies based here, it is difficult to secure sponsorships.
“If we look at the big clubs and how they are struggling to secure sponsorship to increase their funds, you can imagine how the smaller clubs in smaller towns and cities suffer. We are certainly finding it harder to budget every year – food costs, transport, kit, equipment etc are constantly increasing while income via sponsorship is decreasing.
“I do foresee more clubs struggling and eventually either amalgamating or just closing down, which will be detrimental to the development of rugby in the UAE.”
Although the money coming in through sponsorships and income continue to dwindle, costs are nevertheless spiraling dangerously out of control.
Quins’ travel expenses exceeded Dh100,000 last season. They also paid out an Dh773,000 for 1,104 hours of use of the pitch at their Zayed Sports City home.
Talk to clubs about the costs per match day hosted and it’s frightening how much expense is incurred – especially for many operating on shoe string budgets
To hire a football or rugby pitch at The Sevens – where a plethora of Dubai teams play – costs Dh1,920 for a one-off 90 minute booking.
They offer negotiable, reduced rates should you wish to book regular slots. Costs for rugby teams who play at weekends were Dh1,500 last season for two hours and each booking is inclusive of 10 cases of water.
Water is not included at Abu Dhabi’s premier sporting facility, Zayed Sports City, where football pitches are available at Dh750 per one-hour session.
Sharjah Wanderers are in a unique position in that they don’t have to pay pitch fees at their Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club ground. Yet chairman Shane Breen concedes even they would be lost without sponsors.
“At Sharjah we don’t pay pitch fees and the club have an arrangement with water suppliers so that’s covered too,” said Breen.
“Post-game drinks are covered by our A&E sponsorship, so we just pay for player meals which are about Dh45 per person. Usually there are 50 meals post game (Dh2,250). Quite a few clubs are doing away with post-game meals for the opposition which is a sign of the tough times.
“Sharjah are one of very few clubs in the region who don’t pay for pitch hire but even we wouldn’t be able to operate without the support of our sponsors. It’s definitely something that needs to be looked into.
“Rugby in the UAE is still in a strong place but more help from the union could be needed in the future should things get any worse.”
Arabian Knights head coach John Taimana revealed the club forks out, on average, almost Dh5,000 just to host a fixture for its first team.
He said: “Pitch hire on average costs Dh1,500dhs for two hours, medical supplies are Dh300 per match, minimum, water for both teams is Dh120 minimum, ice for post-match beverages and water is Dh60, while the beverages themselves (based at Dh36 per team of 25 players) would mean us buying three cases per match – at a cost of Dh2,700.”
All that adds up to a staggering Dh4,680 – £989. Even more astounding is that Knights – like many clubs in the UAE – have more than one senior team. So double all those numbers for two and three teams, and a club is looking at an outlay close to Dh10-15,000 so two or three of their teams can play rugby each week.
When you factor in travel time, as is essential when playing at the top level, you’re talking infinitely more.
Dragons treasurer Ben Pryor provided us with a detailed list of costs for home and away games, as well as away fixtures in the West Asia Premiership that involve air travel to Bahrain or Doha.
“For a home game, pitch costs don’t affect us like they do other clubs as our head sponsor JA Resorts owns our ground so this is part of our naming agreement (but upwards of Dh300,000 per year is the value of the amount of times Dragons’ three teams use their facility),” he said.
“Per game water is Dh500, food after the game is Dh2,100, beverages are Dh2,000 and paying for a physio or medic is Dh600 – so total Dh5,200 per team, per match.”
Bus travel for away games is around Dh1,600, says Pryor, but the real accountancy skills come when working out the costs for flights.
“Flights and visas – depending on the time of year – are between Dh16,500 and 21,000. Excluding flights, match costs alone can – depending on fixtures – climb well into six figures for the season,” added Pryor.
Of course, budgets are bigger at bigger clubs. But the sums involved are still eye-watering and cast doubts on how sustainable it all is for the future of the game in the Gulf.
For Bahrain and Doha, costs are significantly more still as both teams travelled to the UAE five times for WAP fixtures last season.
Doha club manager Lauren Tremayne said: “Obviously our costs are probably higher than the UAE teams as we have to travel further, this can be noted in the 128,000 Qatari Rial (Dh129,132) we spent on flights for the senior men’s team alone last year.
“The total travel costs for all teams at the club last year was QR346,000 (Dh349,000). This figure is the actual cost to club. Including the players’ contribution (membership fees) the total costs are around QR140,000 for the senior men and a total of QR524,000.”
Flights to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain are also steadily on the rise. One-off costs for the first team were QR12,500 (Dubai), QR16,500 (Bahrain) and QR30,000 (Abu Dhabi) in the 2014/15 season.
Last year they had risen to QR16,250 (Dubai), QR18,000 (Bahrain) and QR39,250 (Abu Dhabi).
Clubs have cried out for help from the powers that be. Craig Gibson, former chairman of now defunct Wasps, believes things started to go bad for clubs playing at The Sevens when the UAE Rugby Federation stopped subsidising pitch hire.
“Costs of running a rugby club have always been prohibitive, and when UAE RF stopped subsidising rugby pitch hire on game days a few years ago, it had a large impact on clubs,” said Gibson.
“Unfortunately, as is the result of sporting evolution, the depth of a new club’s pockets might mean Dubai Wasps are not the last rugby club in the UAE to fold.”
Yet the UAE RF feels that it is best placed maintaining its neutral standpoint. “When the agreement expired (involving subsidising pitch hire) that subsidising element was terminated except for the UAE representative teams at The Sevens,” said UAE RF secretary general Qais Al Dhalai, who is running for the Asia Rugby presidency in November.
“It was a special case a long time ago for Dubai-based clubs. That contract ended in 2014 and when it ended we thought as a national governing body we needed to be very neutral. Why should be subsidise a few clubs in Dubai at The Sevens when we cannot do the same at Dubai Sports City or in Abu Dhabi. We need to be very careful. We need to be neutral to all clubs.
“Each national governing body has the right to charge clubs playing in the league. But we decided a long time ago not to charge clubs an annual subscription fee.
“We are part of World and Asia Rugby and we pay a membership fee. But, to help the clubs, we say clubs who play in the UAE do not have to pay a membership fee. That is our way of assisting them. We are trying our best.
“There are many ways we try to help them. Not a direct financial aid, but we are contributing a lot.”