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

Matt Jones - Editor 19:53 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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