Mike McFarlane insists Abu Dhabi Harlequins are eager to reassert their dominance at Zayed Sports City after responding from a first home defeat in over three years last week with a victory.
A slender 20-17 loss to Jebel Ali Dragons on January 19 saw Quins lose at home for the first time since being beaten 10-6 by city rivals Saracens on January 16, 2014.
Having seen their proud run finally come to a halt last week, McFarlane’s side set about starting this fresh streak in fine style after beating Bahrain 27-5 on Friday.
McFarlane is determined to ensure that the home defeat was only a blip.
“We are proud of that record and of course would like this to be the start of another one,” said McFarlane.
“Everyone tries to make their home a fortress but to actually do it, especially in such a competitive league, is testament to the players’ commitment and success.”
With Dragons having a bye last weekend, Quins’ win inches them back into top spot of the West Asia Premiership, a point ahead of Henry Paul’s side.
“I was really happy with our set-piece against Bahrain which I thought gave us a good platform,” said McFarlane.
“I thought we could have taken further advantage of it also, however, mauls were somehow spoiled and our front row had a hard time even though they were on the front foot – something we will focus on during video analysis this week.”
Five trophies won last season may suggest a golden period of dominance in the capital, but Quins are undergoing a period of transition as their rivals rise to the challenge.
They have lost key players William Umu, Patrick Jenkinson and Brian Geraghty – and had to cope with the shock retirement of captain Ben Bolger on the eve of the 2017/18 campaign.
Although most clubs in the region lose players due to the nature of an expat league, Quins are without a staggering 13 players from last season’s quintuple-winning side.
“It’s been incredibly difficult to rebuild the squad, embed structures and patterns that suit new personnel whilst ensuring we reach the expectations we set ourselves each session, game and season,” added McFarlane.
“The biggest thing we have is our culture which we pride ourselves on and which pulls us through tough situations.
“We’ve lost 13 first team players from last year. We currently have 23 injuries throughout our first and second team squads with seven out for the season.”
The reigning West Asia Premiership winners have a bye this weekend, but then face two tough games on the road – against Dubai Hurricanes and resurgent Dubai Exiles.
Dubai Exiles take on Dubai Eagles on Thursday night knowing a bonus point win against a team they torched 85-8 on opening night will catapult them back into the title picture.
A week ago Exiles were seven points off third place. But maximum points against Eagles at home this evening would see them leapfrog Bahrain into third, putting them a few points off the loser of the big top of the table clash between Jebel Ali Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins on Friday.
After their return to 15s action last week was postponed due to Abu Dhabi Saracens failing to raise a team, coach Jacques Benade insists his team are desperate to get back to action – having only played one game of rugby in the last three months.
“After the disappointment of not playing last weekend I think everyone at the club can’t wait to get the second round of the league going,” said the South African, who missed Exiles’ narrow 29-25 defeat to Quins on November 3 due to work commitments.
“We just want to go out there and play some rugby. It’s been a few months without a 15s game so we will be very rusty but also buzzing to go and play. We just need some game time and to go out and enjoy ourselves.”
The UAE fixture list is always convoluted and subject to change from season to season. But Benade believes it needs addressing for the 2018/19 campaign.
He added: “I think it is important that the UAE Rugby Federation look at the fixtures for next year and sit with the clubs and see how we in the UAE can make sure that it’s better organised.”
Despite the anticipation of returning to action, Exiles are hampered by several serious injuries. Second row lehan Koekemoer has undergone shoulder surgery and will be out for the season, as is livewire winger Jerry Kilicanasau due to a dislocated shoulder.
Ex-Sarries full-back Thinus Steyn, meanwhile, is also out after suffering an unspecified injury last week in training.
And despite the scoreline the last time these two sides met, Benade is not expecting a similar outcome.
“I know the Eagles missed players last weekend and didn’t perform as well as they wanted to, but I know they will be keen to put that right tomorrow night,” said Benade, who bemoaned wasted chances in earlier, narrow defeats to their big rivals this season.
“We created a lot of changes against Quins, Dragons and Bahrain to win those games but were not patient and clinical enough, and that is something we really need to focus on in this second part of the season.”
Eagles fly-half Sean Carey insists his side are a different prospect to the rag tag bunch that turned up for their maiden game as a fledgling club just four short months ago.
“We’re looking forward to tomorrow,” said Carey, a former Exiles player.
“We’ve played everyone so we’re back around again. Exiles put a lot of points on us at the start so we know where we are now as a team, we know what every team has to offer too.
“We’re a bit light on numbers, a few players injured. We have a massive squad but some of our first team players are injured. We’ll give it a good go. We’re targeting the next few weeks with a big few games coming up.”
Elsewhere, Sarries welcome Dubai Hurricanes to Al Ghazal, hoping to earn their first win of the season following seven straight defeats – the latest of which was consequence of a forfeit after canceling last week’s fixture against Exiles.
For Canes coach Mike Wernham, the buzz word has been accuracy in training this week.
“December 14 seems like a mighty long time ago,” said Wernham, referencing the last time Canes played, a 30-13 defeat to Dragons.
“We finished that half of the season with a lot of disappointment. We played some really good stuff against Dragons for 20 minutes, unfortunately we overplayed a bit and made some errors, let the game go.
“We’ve been back for two weeks and there’s definitely been a little added aggression and we’re looking forward to getting back out there again. We’re away at Sarries and targeting a bonus point win. We know we need to stretch ourselves.
“It’s been the hardest selection for the coaches with a month off and training numbers good.”
Having put in a lot effort so far this season, with little to no reward, Wernham is hoping the tide can change for his side.
“We know we have a big second half of the season,” he added.
“We’re hoping we get a little bit more now. We’ve been putting in the effort and made huge strides. It’s now up to the boys to perform.
“There’s been so many games the boys could have won against the four teams ahead of us. We’re hoping more things now come in our favour.
We need to get out there and put the words into performances, less talk and more action.”
It might seem a little premature to utter words like destiny, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the mammoth Abu Dhabi Harlequins v Jebel Ali Dragons clash on Friday is a seminal point in the West Asia Premiership season.
The two behemoths collide at Zayed Sports City with clear daylight at the top of the table reward for the victor, as well as the likely title of outright favourites for the 2017/18 cross border trophy.
The campaign is only at the halfway point, but there could be seismic consequences for those teams hoping to challenge should the next few weeks go awry.
Bahrain slipped three points behind Quins and Dragons after a narrow 26-23 defeat in Jebel Ali last week, with Louie Tonkin’s men on a bye week.
A clearer picture of the destination of this season’s WAP title will become clearer next week after Bahrain visit Quins to complete a mouthwatering beginning to 2018.
For now, Dragons’ UAE international winger Ian Overton is looking forward to a possible victory and the chance to celebrate skipper Ross Samson’s 30th birthday in style.
“It’s a massive game. The winner dictates their own destiny, loser has to pray other teams slip up,” said the Welshman, excitedly.
Overton scored the winning try against Quins in the semi-finals of the Gulf Men’s League at December’s Dubai Sevens, and he admitted the club are still upset they then fell at the final hurdle, beaten 19-12 by Dubai Exiles in the final.
“The lads are looking sharp. The boys are fuming about the Sevens. We threw it away.
“Man for man I think we’re the most talented team in the league. Saki (Naisau) is on fire. It’s just about structure and execution. If the boys get that right on the day, they can beat anyone.”
As Dragons plan to present Samson with a birthday treat, Overton revealed he was sad not to be facing another one of his great friends, Ben Bolger, the former Quins captain who retired due to numerous concussions at the start of the campaign.
“I’m hoping they will let this old dog come off the bench and have a trot too,” added Overton.
“Either way they’ve got quality to burn. It’s one of my best buds and skipper Rosco’s 30th so the boys will want to give him something to celebrate.
“If I do play it will be a shame not playing against the worst rig in rugby, Benny Bolger. That’s a massive loss for them. He’s got the worst chat on the planet but he can inspire like no other on the pitch. It’s two great clubs so it will be a cracker.”
Quins are slightly depleted, especially in the front row where coach Mike McFarlane has had to sacrifice a second team fixture.
Nevertheless he knows this is the type of occasion his squad will rise to.
“It’s a tough weekend against a quality side. It will be a challenge,” said the Englishman.
“It will certainly challenge the quality in depth of the club with so many injuries. The players have been training hard this week and there is a good buzz around the squad as normal, these are the games we play rugby for.
“It’s time for players to step up and put in performances whether they are senior first team players or second team players coming in.
“The extent of the injuries means we aren’t able to field a front row for the second team – never has that happened under my tenure and it is something I am gutted about.
“However, fulfilling a first team fixture comes first and the safety of players is paramount. Of course we want to play, being top of the league, and we offered Dubai Exiles an alternative date as the second team only play alternative weeks, however I don’t think it’s been accepted.”
Injuries or not, Dragons coach Henry Paul knows his side must beat Quins if they are serious about earning success this term.
“We’re largely injury free, just a bit bruised from the Bahrain win, and we expect our hardest match in years, especially after our epic Sevens win against Quins in December,” said the New Zealander, who will stick with near enough the same side that beat Bahrain last week.
“We’re under no illusion of the task in front of us from a well drilled champion side, if we want to win trophies this season here is the test.”