New Knights of the UAE rugby realm as merger creates Dubai Knights Eagles

Matt Jones 26/06/2019
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Knights Eagles chairperson Louise Palmer and director of rugby Sean Carey.

An historic merger between Dubai Eagles and Arabian Knights to form Dubai Knights Eagles will create one of the biggest clubs in the UAE, and one that is now stronger on every level.

Those are the shared views of the key people behind the move, which was confirmed on Wednesday. The club hope the merger will take Knights Eagles to the “next level”.

Knights were established more than a decade ago and have always boasted a strong mini and youth section. Eagles landed in Dubai just two summers ago and, while they have struggled to adjust to the elite level in the senior men’s game, their ladies side has really taken flight. They lifted the Gulf Women’s title at the Dubai Rugby Sevens in December 2017, a mere six months after forming.

Both former clubs played their home games at Dubai Sports City, and decided a merger made perfect sense.

“It felt like the right people, culture and timing,” said Louise Palmer, who founded Knights with her late husband, Neil, back in 2008, and will carry her chairwoman role from Knights to the new club.

“The rugby environment right now in the UAE is really tough. Changes in the expat community are tough, so it felt like the right time.

Dubai Knights Eagles

“It wasn’t really a necessity. It was something I’d not really thought about until a meeting I had with Vijay (Sajjanhar, chief financial officer at Dubai Sports City) where I was just trying to keep my pitch (Knights have played at DSC since 2011).

“I’d always considered Dubai Sports City the Knights’ home and always fought quite hard to keep it. Of course, we probably consider ourselves to be, last season, in competition with each other. So we saw the advantages (of merging).”

“It just made sense,” added UAE international Sean Carey, Eagles’ director of rugby, who will also occupy the same role with Knights Eagles.

“We were competing for numbers last year and both teams play here so it made sense to stop fighting against each other. It’ll make all the teams better.”

A new club emblem – incorporating both the Knights and Eagles logo – has been created. There are still details to iron out, such as a new green/orange outfit which Carey joked could resemble Africa Cup of Nations giants Ivory Coast’s kit. Head coaches for the senior men’s side, which will continue to play in the West Asia and UAE Premiership, as well as appointments at all levels, will be made in due course.

But one thing that is clear is the new venture will be stronger together. There could be as many as 550+ combined members within the Knights Eagles ranks, which would make it the third or fourth biggest club in the Emirates.

And Carey is eying further improvement and development. “I see this as a huge potential of growth for rugby in the region,” added the former Ireland Under-19 international.

“Knights have been around for 10 years and have a really good junior set-up. Our ladies have won everything over the last two years so we want to maintain that.

“We want to bring the men’s team to that level and develop the juniors. The ultimate goal is the development of rugby, we want to improve at all ages. That’s the vision of Dubai Sports City and the UAE Rugby Federation as well.

“This is something that happens in Europe or the southern hemisphere, where clubs can develop, and this is the route we’re going, to get us to the next level. The talent in this country is huge, it’s just about getting the organisation. I think as a club we can be one of the best to do that.”

For Palmer, being able to extend the name and legacy of Knights is something deeply personal to her. She founded the club in 2008 with husband Neil, who died suddenly, aged just 45, at the family’s Dubai home following a heart attack shortly after arriving back from holiday in February 2015.

“I founded the club with my late husband 10 years ago. It was a rugby passion,” she said.

“People always ask me if I play rugby. No, I don’t. It wasn’t something I ever wanted to do but I found I had a passion for it through my sons and the rugby community.

“The support we’ve had has been amazing and 10 years later here we are looking for stability more than anything and for the legacy of the club to go on. This will give the club the stability it needs.

“We find it’s a great partnership. We’re really strong in the youth and minis but struggle in the men’s side because we’ve not got a Premiership team, so we have always let players leave. Now, they can stay with us, so it’s perfect.

“We’ll offer rugby now at every single level. We complement each other well. We didn’t have a ladies team but a strong girls’ teams, and we didn’t have a senior side. We have every single layer now at the club.”

For UAE RF secretary general Qais Al Dhalai, the merger reminds him of a similar situation that effected the Arabian Gulf League two years ago.

Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai CSC were merged for the 2017/18 campaign, as were Sharjah and Al Shaab.

“Now it’s happening in rugby,” said Al Dhalai.

“It’s not that a club is weaker or stronger, it’s for the betterment of rugby. Registered players for Knights are around 350, Eagles 150. This is now considered the third or fourth largest club in the country.

“Dubai Wasps disbanded four years ago. Something like this is a good thing because players can go to other clubs and now more players come together. This is historic for UAE rugby.”

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Dubai Eagles and Arabian Knights merge to form Dubai Knights Eagles

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Louise Palmer (l) of Knights, Sean Carey (2nd l) of Eagles, as well as Qais Al Dhalai and Vijay Sajjanhar.

Dubai Eagles and Arabian Knights have merged with the newly formed club named Dubai Knights Eagles.

The merger was announced at Dubai Sports City on Wednesday by senior executives of Dubai Sports City and the UAE Rugby Federation. They said the move is a great opportunity to create a club that offers the best rugby experience in the region to players of all ages and skill levels.

Arabian Knights was founded in 2008 by husband and wife Neil and Louise Palmer. The couple were a force of nature in the UAE rugby landscape, until the untimely passing of Neil in 2015 which left Louise to keep the club going in order to preserve its legacy, which she has done with courage and commitment.

Arabian Knights has approximately 350 members and the club has regularly based itself at Dubai Sports City Sports Park since 2011.

Speaking about the legacy of the club, Mrs Palmer said: “I have been very keen to give the Arabian Knights a permanent home and I am incredibly proud that today’s news will provide the club not only with the stability it deserves but also safeguards the legacy, which both Neil and myself worked so hard to preserve.”

Eagles, only recently founded in the summer of 2017, has 200 active members and is the only rugby club in the UAE which owns their home venue, all of which makes the tie-up a natural fit.

Dubai Knights Eagles Rugby Logo

Particularly as Dubai Sports City is committed to growing the game of rugby and ensuring the Sports Park is the venue of choice for community rugby.

Vijay Sajjanhar, CFO of Dubai Sports City, added: “The announcement today speaks loudly in regards to the commitment of Dubai Sports City to the sport of rugby in the UAE.

“At Dubai Sports City we know that sport has the power to bring individuals and cultures together and this amalgamation shows that rugby has a long-term home in the heart of the community for players of all ages and skills.”

The new club will feature the green and orange from each team and will compete at all levels of UAE leagues and have a full complement of mini and youth players. The club members will have the advantage of the social elements of the Sports Park such as the changing rooms, access to gymnasiums, running track and indoor facilities creating a unique experience for the all members, both new and old.

The consolidation of the two clubs will create the third largest club in the region.

Qais Al Dhalai, secretary general UAE RF, said: “With a venue of the quality of the Sports Park, this new club will offer a unique opportunity and playing experience to all those involved.

“Many rugby clubs are under pressure financially in today’s market and these types of mergers are seen as a positive step in the maturation of the rugby club business in the UAE. We, the UAE Rugby Federation, see this as a positive step and one that augers well for the future of all rugby enthusiasts.”

For further information about today’s news, visit http://www.dsc.ae/

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Louie Tonkin heads to Exeter Chiefs having transformed Bahrain into giant of Gulf rugby

Matt Jones 10/06/2019
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Louie Tonkin (2nd l) heads to Exeter Chiefs having turned Bahrain into a Gulf rugby superpower.

Louie Tonkin is taking up a position with one of the biggest rugby teams in the world, but admits he will leave the Middle East with a very heavy heart.

The Welshman will pack his bags and leave Bahrain in the coming weeks, returning home to the United Kingdom where he will take up a role in Exeter Chiefs’ academy. He leaves the west Asia outfit as the dominant force in Gulf rugby and is heading for a dream opportunity he hopes will eventually lead to professional coaching.

But he admits he is scared to leave a country whose sole rugby club he has totally transformed, as well as his own rugby philosophy. He’s even met his fiancee, Hayley, out here.

“The new challenge is hugely exciting,” said Tonkin, 36, who led Bahrain to the West Asia Premiership and West Asia Cup double this term.

“It’s a big change. I’m not overly happy to leave this region yet, we didn’t plan to leave so soon as we’ve loved it in Bahrain and we’re scared to leave and will miss it.

“But the challenge of working with a club like Exeter Chiefs is a huge opportunity for me. I’ve always said I’d like to get back to the professional elite game, wherever that may be.

“Chiefs would be a top-three dream employer, in the world.

“I went there for my interview and was overwhelmed by the professionalism, the people and Sandy Park. It’s a fantastic place, and stimulated me so much. I just couldn’t turn it down.

“I can’t wait to try and develop further and be around world-class players and coaches and learn from them. I want to get back on the path I was a few years ago and reach the pinnacle.

“I want to be a successful professional coach for the rest of my career and I think I’ve made a positive step towards doing that.”

Tonkin, from Builth Wells in mid Wales, came out to the Gulf in July 2016 in need of a professional and personal reset, having enjoyed a succession of success coaching Cardiff University, Llandovery, Pontypool and Carmarthen Quins in his homeland.

The man mountain former Wales youth basketball international stands at a giant 6’ 6” but met his match with his latest task – dragging Bahrain from the shadows of obscurity to the No1 team in the region.

Steady improvement was Tonkin’s calling card throughout his first two seasons – even if he felt they over-performed to reach the inaugural West Asia Cup final in his first year, although they were consummately beaten by Abu Dhabi Harlequins.

They returned a year later and beat Dubai Exiles to lift a first trophy in eight years. They followed it up with the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title in pre-season and Tonkin’s epilogue to his three-year story in Bahrain was bookended by leading them to a dominant West Asia Premiership title triumph – a campaign in which they lost just once in 17 games.

“I’ve had a fantastic time with Bahrain, it’s been a brilliant experience,” added Tonkin.

Tonkin (back row, 2nd l) led Bahrain to the West Asia Cup title in 2018 - it was a first trophy for the club in eight years.

Tonkin (back row, 2nd l) led Bahrain to the West Asia Cup title in 2018 – it was a first trophy for the club in eight years.

“I came out here three years ago and didn’t know what to expect. I’d seen some footage from previous results, but obviously results weren’t very good back then. I didn’t come in with too much expectation, it was just the challenge of growth.

“We’ve had a great three seasons categorised by steady progression. We were competitive each year and finished in the top four in our first year.

“Perhaps we overachieved really where we reached the last four against Doha and lost in the final (West Asia Cup) to a far better side in Harlequins.

“It was a great stepping stone and created an environment where there suddenly was an expectation, a belief. They (the players) realised they could do well and be successful in this league.

“They expected to beat top teams consistently and we took that into our second season.

“We still struggled against Quins in the early part but then beat them in the West Asia Cup semis and won the cup. We still weren’t the finished article.

“(Jebel Ali) Dragons beat us in the final game of the season at our place to win the league and that hurt us but motivated us, galvanised us.

“That’s what we wanted to do the next year. And in the third year I felt we got pretty close to where I wanted us to be.

“We were the dominant force, won the league by a fair distance and won a hard-fought final.”

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