Deep love and community spirit driving Sharjah Wanderers' resurgence

Matt Jones 9/07/2019
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Wanderers players celebrate their UAE Conference triumph in 2015/16.

Returning from a 12-month exile proves there is a deep sense of community spirit and passion coursing through the veins of people associated with Sharjah Wanderers.

That is the message being delivered by new chairman Chris Paton, one of the club’s most senior players, who admits Wanderers will always hold a special place in his heart.

Paton has played for a club located in the shadow of the giant that has become Dubai – but one that has been around for longer than all but one of the city’s myriad other teams – for a decade.

At least it would have been a decade had Wanderers not decided to pull their senior men’s team out of competition on the eve of the 2018/19 season due to dwindling player numbers.

They hoped, however, it would only be temporary. And the good news that Sharjah would be back for 2019/20 was announced via the club’s Instagram account less than two weeks ago.

“When I came over I planned to only stay for two years and I’m still here. The club’s a big part of that and the friends that have come with it,” admitted 32-year-old Paton, who will replace long-serving Shane Breen as chairman.

“It’s been quite a journey but it’s been great fun and I can’t wait to carry it on.”

Influential No8 Isaac Porter is heading back to Sharjah.

Influential No8 Isaac Porter is heading back to Sharjah.

If it wasn’t obvious already, the Dubai Knights Eagles merger between Dubai Eagles and Arabian Knights, announced at the end of last month, proves survival is a big issue for many UAE rugby clubs.

It always has been for an amateur sport built on expatriate players whose sporting passion nevertheless comes second to the main reason they’re here in the Emirates – employment.

But Paton believes there is something special about Sharjah, one of the UAE’s oldest clubs, who were established in 1977 – only Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins are older.

“There’s definitely a big community spirit at the club,” added Paton, the back rower who still envisions being required on as well as off the field next season.

“The fact everyone makes the effort to train wherever we can and play under the circumstances – playing in all sorts of positions and guys coming from the vets – proves that.

“You can tell how people feel about the club just by how relatively quick and easy this has been to get back together. We’ve got a lot of guys involved already, who love the club and want to help get it back to where it belongs.”

Where Sharjah feel they belong is in the UAE’s second tier Conference, a division they were crowned champions of just four seasons ago, while they reached the final again in 2017/18, losing to Dubai Tigers.

They will most likely be reinstated to the Conference although Paton admits he is still waiting for concrete confirmation off the UAE Rugby Federation.

Long term, the club has ambitions to be challenging for titles again, although Wanderers are keeping their aims a little lower in the short term.

“If we can get a decent 22 out on the first day that will be a win in itself,” admitted Paton.

“But a lot of our drive is we used to be one of the teams competing for the Conference each year and I think we’d like to be doing that again. But we’re realistic, it’s not necessarily going to be straight back in at the top. We’ll see what state we’re in when we get back in August.”

Pre-season will start on August 27, taking place on Tuesday evenings from 7.30pm at King’s School Al Barsha, coinciding with the return of many people from their summer holidays.

Paton revealed former Sharjah star Isaac Porter is returning to the club after spending 2018/19 with Eagles, a campaign which ended with international recognition. The Irishman was part of Apollo Perelini’s UAE side that earned promotion back to Asia Rugby’s Division I after victories over Guam and Thailand.

He will be returning to Sharjah from Eagles along with Shane Fowley and Paddy Barcoe.

“Isaac tapped me up, he’s been one of the driving forces behind getting the club back together, it hit everyone pretty hard last year,” added Paton.

“It’s all turned around though and everyone’s mad keen to get back up and running again. Everyone, bar one or two who were here previously, are back involved and there’s a few who’ve moved clubs who are sticking with those clubs, and that’s fine.

“But we’ve got five or six new players which is a good start, hopefully we get a few more. Isacc was keen to be back involved even though he’s missing the first half of the season through injury.”

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Great news for UAE rugby as Sharjah Wanderers announce a return to action in 2019/20

Matt Jones 2/07/2019
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Wanderers players celebrate their 2016 UAE Conference triumph.

One of the UAE’s most popular and oldest rugby clubs will make a welcome return to action next season after 12 months away.

Sharjah Wanderers’ men’s team will be back in action for 2019/20 after taking a 12-month hiatus on the eve of the 2018/19 season due to player departures. Club chairman at the time, Shane Breen, revealed Wanderers had lost half of their players from the previous season over the summer of 2018, leaving them with a tough decision to make.

But, as had been the case with the news delivered a year ago, the club announced via their Instagram account on Thursday that their men’s team is returning and recruiting for the upcoming campaign, with pre-season training starting on August 27, taking place on Tuesday evenings from 7.30pm at King’s School Al Barsha.

Chris Paton has replaced Sharjah-born Breen as chairman, while a new committee will also be in place to steer the club forward.

But Breen revealed he will still be around to offer any advice if needed.

“A few of the lads are working to start the men’s team back up gain. I’ve stepped down as chairman and there’s a fresh committee who will be great for the club and they’ll try to get things back to where they used to be,” said 33-year-old Breen, who first turned out for the club aged six.

The Northern Irishman, who is himself taking a break this season as he and his wife, Ciara, are expecting their first child in August, added: “I might join the boys in a playing capacity later on in the season but for now I’m just giving the new committee advice when they ask for it.

“Chris has been very proactive so far in trying to get things going again. The club needed some fresh input and hopefully it goes well.”

Wanderers are one of the Emirates’ oldest clubs, established in 1977, and they celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2017.

Only Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Bats (now Harlequins) have been around longer. Quins came into being in 1974 while Exiles were the first club to be created in the UAE, in 1966.

The club has enjoyed much success in recent years. Nic Walters led Wanderers to a thrilling UAE Conference title win three years ago – beating Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds in the 2015/16 final.

After deciding against promotion to the top-flight of UAE rugby, Sharjah struggled a year later before returning to prominence in 2017/18 as they reached the Conference final yet again, this time on the losing side as Dubai Tigers’ sudden death try earned a 25-20 win.

Wanderers had continued to thrive in other departments even as their men’s side took a break last season, with their women’s rugby team, as well as the club’s thriving gaelic sports sides, continuing to compete. They had also continued to enter men’s and vets sides at the Dubai Rugby Sevens as well as other sevens and 10s tournaments throughout the season.

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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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