Ross Samson admits it feels like 2013 again at Jebel Ali Dragons as he believes the club have rediscovered the swagger that saw them lift back to back trebles just four seasons ago.
The 29-year-old former Edinburgh and London Irish scrum-half arrived in the Emirates in 2013 and helped Dragons roar to a second straight three trophy haul of UAE Premiership, West Asia Championship and Dubai Sevens.
That 2013/14 feat came on the back of a first treble a year earlier as Dragons dominated domestic rugby. Yet, Dragons have since been sucked into a downward spiral and been forced to watch the rise of Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Dubai Exiles and even Abu Dhabi Saracens.
Things improved when ex-union and league international Henry Paul came on board as head coach last summer. And Dragons showed further signs they might well be back to their best when they beat rivals Dubai Exiles in a thrilling 22-18 encounter at The Sevens earlier this month.
And Samson, one of the few surviving members of that successful double treble-winning squad, is hoping to party like it’s 2013 come the end of 2017/18 campaign.
“I joined Dragons in 2013. That was the third year in a row they’d won everything. I thought ‘this is alright’,” said Samson, who battled Scotland stalwarts Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw for the number nine jersey during two seasons with his hometown club after joining them from Newcastle Falcons in 2009.
“It was a winning team with a good bunch of boys, really sociable too. We went away from that for a few years. Obviously the UAE is a transient place so boys came and went. I’ve stuck it out and kept my body together and it feels like 2013 again, if not better.
“We’ve got some unbelievable players, like Saki (centre Sakiusa Naisau) and Niko (winger Niko Volavola), guys who pull things out of nowhere.
“Then you add to that some structure, some big lads and English and Welsh lads in the back row, and it feels good again. At training we’re like 40 or 50 guys as opposed to 15 or 20 in previous season and three full teams.
“It creates a really positive vibe and you saw that (against Exiles). Exiles had it a few years ago, Quins had it last season.”
Samson paid tribute following the Exiles game to Quins stalwart Ben Bolger, forced to retire earlier this month due to repeated concussions.
Captain Samson fulfills a similar leadership role at Dragons, although he described himself as more of a “Marmite” type of character compared to Bolger in the Gulf rugby community.
“I’m a bit of a mouthpiece,” Samson admitted when it was put to him people either love or loathe him.
“I like winding up the opposition, it’s part of the game. There was a bit of love there with Gio (Fourie, Exiles’ former Dragons hooker) who was with us last year. Then there’s Jaen (Botes) their No8, who’s had more clubs than Tiger Woods.
“The refs are a bit Marmite with me too so I’ll have to work on that, but we want to have a bit of fun. We’ve all got jobs. We train and put the effort in, I don’t want to come here after work on a Friday and be treated like a professional.
“It’s a good social. We want to play rugby and express ourselves, have a chat and have some fun scoring tries.”
And cocksure Scotsman Samson said it feels good that Dragons have rediscovered a bit of their swagger.
“It does feel like Dragons have their swagger back, I think so,” said Samson.
“When I speak to boys on a night out, boys want to play for us and hate playing against us. We know we have to be at our best whoever we play because even having been away for a few years, teams want to beat us.
“That’s what we like and a bit of swagger never hurt anyone, as long as you’re also humble at the final whistle and shake hands, it’s all good.”
Samson linked Dragons’ turnaround to Paul’s arrival. And even though Dragons were vastly improved in 2016/17, he feels they have improved again over the summer.
“Last season we would have lost this game,” Samson said of their most recent win, earned after an initial last-gasp try awarded to Exiles scrum-half Carel Thomas was overturned by the touch judge who deemed he had knocked on after a last-ditch Naisau tackle.
Dragons lost in similar circumstances to Quins on the opening day, a converted try beyond 80 minutes giving them a 34-33 win – a result that echoed the scoreline in the same fixture last season. And Samson believes holding on for victory against Exiles is significant.
“It was heartbreak against Quins and now we hang on and see the game out. We pushed Quins to within a point in the first game and today we wanted to play well in the local derby, we won and scored some nice tries, and closed the game out.
“And I think that’s what HP has brought, confidence and structure. I think the structures are in place. The boys have massive respect for HP so buy into it. It’s a bit easier when he’s been there and done it. Last year was a learning curve. We got better slowly but surely and each game.”
The UAE for many expats is a land of opportunity. A temporary base from which to launch a career, make enough money to then leave and set up home somewhere else.
For Rob Gough and Shane Breen, however, the UAE, moreover Sharjah, and its rugby club in particular has always been, or has become, home. Instead of making money, they have made a life and memories here. Both have been synonymous with Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club – one of the region’s oldest clubs, which marks its 40th anniversary this year.
A man who has been here for 38 of Wanderers’ 40 years is Welshman Rob Gough, who arrived in Sharjah in 1979 as a fresh-faced 21-year-old. He may have moved away from the home comforts of Barry, seven miles southwest of the capital, Cardiff, but he quickly became hooked on Wanderers and the “special” familial and community vibe that rugby famously fosters – even 3,000 miles away.
“I was working on one of the building sites and a few of my mates were playing rugby at Sharjah, so it was natural to go and play for them,” said Gough, now 57.
“It was the centre of Sharjah then as far as expat life was concerned. Just about everyone would go there whether they played sport or not. It was just somewhere you went on the weekend, you got hooked into it. It kind of got under my skin.”
Sport is always a great way to meet new people. But aside from his love of the game, the lasting friendships Gough has made through it and Wanderers is what has been at the core of his time in the Emirates.
“It’s all the friendships. You play the sport and it lasts two lots of 40 minutes with a long break in the middle. But those friendships you make last a lot longer,” added Gough, a business development manager for an oil and gas services company.
The relationships forged in his early days in the Middle East run so deep, there is a Sharjah Wanderers old boys reunion which takes place in the UK each summer.
“The guys I played with in the 1982/83 season, we’re still in touch,” Gough added.
“There’s a Wanderers reunion each summer in the UK where you get 50, 60 or 70 people attending. That’s been happening for the last 25 years. So the friendships you make, that’s one of the highlights for me.”
The furthest Gough was used to travelling when playing back home in Wales was Bridgend – a short 18-mile drive. But when he moved to the Gulf, plane trips to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Doha and Muscat became the norm.
“That’s what Gulf rugby meant back then. There was one Abu Dhabi team, one Dubai team, a Sharjah team, an Al Ain team, Ras Al Khaimah, there was Das Island and a Ruwais club as well but to play away we’d have to travel to Bahrain, Muscat, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Doha.
“You’d have a weekend away every three weeks and the team spirit would be great, it’d be like a mini tour.
“Playing for Barry the furthest you’d travel is Bridgend away, so to get on a plane to Kuwait and play rugby for the weekend, it was an eye-opening experience. It always felt a bit special.”
As well as friendships formed with teammates and their families, bonds were also created with rival clubs, with home players putting their Kuwaiti and Saudi-based opponents up in their villas and vice versa.
“Opposition teams coming in would often just stay at the villas of home players and their families rather than booking an expensive hotel,” added Gough.
“The same would happen if you went away too, which helped form those bonds and friendships.
“You didn’t just turn up and play, have a few drinks then leave. Everyone got involved with fundraising. Guys were involved with construction in the early days, building roads and airports, so a lot of guys lent their skills on the weekend, building the pitches, the clubhouse.
“That would bring you together too as you’re all working together.”
Gough has fulfilled many roles at the rugby club over the years. The full-back come centre has probably played just about every position since arriving in the Emirate in the summer of 1979 – just two years after the club was established. He would go on to do his stint as chairman in the early nineties. Under his stewardship the club’s junior and women’s programmes were set up – Sharjah Wanderers’ ladies were the Gulf’s first women’s rugby team, of which his wife Sian was a founding member.
Children Seren, Tirion and Griff have all come through the ranks at the club – underpinning rugby’s reputation as a sport that provides you with a second family.
“The kids have all played for the club and my wife too,” added Gough.
“When I was chairman, rather than it being a male rugby domain, we tried to expand it. We got the junior rugby and ladies rugby going.
“My wife and the other ladies formed the first women’s rugby team in the Gulf, back in 1991/92, along with Dubai. That’s something I’m pretty proud of. I’ve been captain and chairman of the club. Most of us have. I’m still an active member of the club, I still play vets rugby.”
The all-inclusive nature of the club is something that is still very much alive today as Wanderers welcomed in their 40th year – only Dubai Exiles (1966) and Abu Dhabi Harlequins (Bats, 1970) are older.
With training numbers dwindling six years ago as the shine of Sharjah gathered dust in the shadow of Dubai’s monstrous growth since the early nineties, the future looked bleak and the club faced a tough decision. That decision was made, to switch training from the sports club to The Sevens Stadium, and Wanderers have flourished because of it.
Able to now enjoy a share of the new influx of talent coming into Dubai each summer, Sharjah have not only managed to survive, they’ve thrived – winning the UAE Conference title in March 2016, beating Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds 27-26 in one of the most memorable games played in the Emirates in recent history.
“With the rise of Dubai, the number of expats in Sharjah started to dwindle,” said current Sharjah chairman Breen, a Northern Irishman born and bred in the UAE.
“We faced the question six years ago with dwindling numbers at training and guys couldn’t get to Sharjah with traffic, so we made the decision to move training to Dubai. And we’ve been able to have 25-35 guys training regularly in the week and build a squad around that.”
It would be inaccurate to say the move saved the club, but it’s definitely helped bring in new blood.
“We’d still exist but it’s enabled us to go to a different level, by tapping into the Dubai player pool,” added Breen, 31, whose late father David had moved to Sharjah in the late 70s, around the time of Gough’s arrival.
“For us, moving to Dubai was just a requirement to keep the men’s team going at the start of the 2011/12 season.
“We could have continued training here but we’d probably be a Community League side now. We would have had good players but we wouldn’t have trained properly or been able to compete in the league like we did in the UAE Conference final a few years ago.
“We wouldn’t have been as strong as we are today. It’s just something we needed to do. Obviously that has pitfalls as we need to pay for pitch hire at The Sevens when we have a free pitch in Sharjah.
“It’s not financially beneficial to train in Dubai but like everything else, we make it work and keep everybody happy.”
Although rugby has been played through four decades at the club, Wanderers are true trailblazers.
The rapid rise of an Irish community in Sharjah has been capitalised on, with Sharjah Wanderers Ladies Gaelic Football team founded in 2009 by Claire McWilliams. They were Middle East League champions three years running from 2010-12 and a thriving men’s section has sprung up in the last five years too – a section of the club that boasts in excess of 160 members.
The all-inclusive nature of Wanderers is there in the club’s full name and Breen is delighted that rugby, football and now Gaelic football are all growing together. It’s safe to say that in its 40th year, Sharjah Wanderers has never been stronger.
“They’ve been great for the club. It’s been revitalised,” added Breen.
“It was stalling a little bit. They’ve brought a freshness to the club, with younger people coming in.
“There’s not too many rugby players actually living in Sharjah now. Out of a squad of 35 we’ve got eight rugby guys who live in Sharjah. The vast majority play Gaelic and they’ve been fantastic from starting five years ago.
“They’ve grown exponentially. They took 16 teams to the last tournament. The men’s team were promoted to the senior league last season and won a tournament.
“It’s definitely growing and rugby will grow alongside it. We’re a sports club at the end of the day and we support everything the sports club does, not just rugby. Rugby was the founding club that started it all but it’s definitely changed with time. It’s a good place to be.”
Like Gough, Breen has fulfilled many roles at the club. He’s been chairman for the past three seasons and still plays, filling in as replacement scrum-half in Wanderers’ 41-31 Conference win over Al Ain Amblers on Friday. He first turned out for the club aged six, dad David also made a handful of appearances upon his arrival.
Breen and his family are family friends with Dubai Hurricanes skipper and UAE international Dave Knight – the pair part of an exclusive group still playing rugby, along with Canes’ Alan Short, who grew up playing on the sand pitches of the Emirates.
Breen remembers, not fondly, lying on Sharjah’s sand pitch as a child, being put through ‘bootcamp’ style training by former coach Harry Adamson – a far cry from how the UAE’s kids are taught today.
“Harry was back for the reunion, he was my first coach,” said Breen, a valuation surveyor with Cluttons.
“He had a military background. I remember lying on the sandy pitch and the bootcamp-style training. Now it’s all tag rugby with the juniors so it’s a bit different.”
Wanderers still played on sand as recently as 2005 when a grass one was laid for the 2006 Under 19 Rugby World Championship, held in the UAE, with some games featuring in Sharjah.
“Everyone in the 80s remembers Sharjah’s sand pitch,” said Breen, although it was a far cry from RAK Rugby’s beach pitch.
“It was more septic. It was a mix of gravel, rock. If it rained the pitch would flood and it would be a mix of septic water from some leaking sewage tank, and getting a cut would sting for a month. I think a lot of people have that sort of memory of Sharjah.”
Ben Bolger’s forced retirement from rugby has caused ructions across the UAE this week but his national team coach claims he’ll be missed for being a good man as much as his rugby prowess.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins flanker Bolger officially announced his shock retirement to teammates at training last Monday.
Only 28, it came as a surprise, but having suffered close to 20 concussions throughout his 23 years playing rugby, the former London Broncos player said he’d taken the decision with his health and family in mind.
And for the impact the loss of such a player will have on Quins and the national team, UAE coach Apollo Perelini says Bolger’s infectious and inspiring personality will be as equal a loss.
“All good rugby captains have to not just be good players, but good men, off and on the field, who command a lot of respect,” said Perelini.
“All the captains who have served under me have been good leaders, Niall Statham and then Ben, but they’ve been good men. They don’t do a lot of talking but they’re all action. And those two are all action men.
“They lead from the front. They’re not barking orders from the back, they’re at the front and showing the way. They don’t say much. They just say ‘follow me’ and Ben’s one of those guys.”
Having witnessed Bolger suffering a concussion while under his watch at the Asia Rugby Championship previously, Perelini admitted he had concerns about the player’s well-being.
“I had the discussion with Ben last year. He got concussed in the first minute of our first game and I was really concerned for him,” added Perelini.
“I always say to my players you’ve got two of most things but you’ve only got one head. I’m never going to put any player on the field that I feel will struggle, especially if he’s had concussion issues in the past.
“I was always concerned for Ben when I look at his history of concussions. It’s sad to think Ben won’t be on the field again but I think it’s the best decision for him. I wouldn’t want him to continue playing and then have problems later on in life.”
Looking ahead to next year’s ARC, where Perelini and the UAE will try to establish themselves in Division I after a rough landing in Asia Rugby’s second tier this year, the former dual code star admits Bolger’s loss will be felt, but he’s excited about a new wave of talent becoming available.
The likes of Quins prop Craig Nutt and Jebel Ali Dragons duo, powerhouse South African hooker Gio Fourie and explosive Fijian centre Sakiusa Naisau, all qualify for the UAE this season. And Perelini believes his squad will be infinitely enhanced.
“There’s a few players becoming available this year and I’ve been out to watch a few games and seen a few videos,” said the New Zealander.
“There’s a few boys who have already put their hand up. It’s always difficult to select a squad and it will be no different next year. There’s some really good players becoming available and they’re all putting their hand up.
“This past year we failed to adapt to the conditions and the competition (the UAE lost all three games v hosts Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines).
“I put that blame down to me. When the team is not successful I’m not going to make excuses and say it was the players’ fault, it’s my fault. They were my responsibility.”