Doom and gloom may not be exactly making way for boom, but things are definitely looking up for Abu Dhabi Saracens ahead of the 2019/20 season.
Director of rugby and head coach Peter Henderson claims the club are well ahead of schedule in terms of the four-year plan he rolled out to get the Al Ghazal side back up and running, having been on the verge of extinction two summers ago.
Henderson admitted Sarries were in “survival” mode for 2017/18, while last year they dropped to one team and self-relegated to the second tier UAE Conference from the UAE Premiership – Sarries were champions of west Asia just four years ago.
But, ahead of the new campaign, the club are back up to two teams and will surely be targeting the UAE Division 1 (formerly the Conference) title and promotion after narrowly missing out a year ago.
Sarries head into the new campaign stronger than expected, with new coaches, new players and improved facilities all in place. And Henderson admits there is an extremely positive feel around the capital club.
“When I took over the role two years ago I was more or less thrown into it,” said Henderson.
“That first year was survival, I can’t deny it. Sarries needed to change direction with respect to how we did things, who we are and what we’re all about.
“That included some tough decisions and I put in place a four-year plan. First of all was to reduce to one senior men’s team and bring back traditional rugby values.
“I was planning on growing us back to two teams in time for the 2020/21 season but in light of the unprecedented number of new players and a recruitment drive, as well as amazing new coaches, we are proud to be in a position to extend Sarries back to two teams.”
In the Conference last year Sarries won a remarkable 11 out of their 13 games. That was good enough for third place in the overall table but with the Conference split into two separate groups, they confusingly didn’t make the semi-finals as they found themselves in Group B with the league’s other two top sides, Dubai Tigers and Al Ain Amblers.
Sarries claimed 46 points, the same as Al Ain, but finished third on points difference, with Amblers and Tigers heading into the play-offs. Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds and Dubai Hurricanes 2nds were first and second in Group A (despite hauling in 16 and 12 fewer points). Tigers beat Dragons and Amblers overcame Canes in the semis, with Tigers’ 37-21 win in the final seeing them promoted to the West Asia Premiership.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow to have worked so hard but that’s rugby,” added Henderson of Sarries’ season.
“Some days you’re the pigeon and other days the statue. Dubai Tigers were worthy winners as were all teams who went in to the final series. We have full respect for the competition structure and all our opponents.
“This year is a different structure and we’re expecting to deliver well prepared and exciting rugby. We’re incredibly proud to be able to field teams in both Division 1 and Division 2 (formerly the UAE Community League).”
Henderson admitted he was very proud to have had so many players returning and new additions during pre-season, who had somewhat forced the club’s hand and ensured they had to reform the second team.
“Numbers at training have continued to swell week by week hence the decision to enter a second team into Division 2,” he said.
New chairman Joe Cervantes added: “With more than enough players for one team I proposed to the committee that we simply cannot deny players who train and pay their subs the chance to play.
“Sarries exist to grow rugby in Abu Dhabi and the UAE in the style and traditions that only a rugby club can. We’ll always welcome players of any ability. Gulf Rugby Management have been very supportive as well. We’re proud of where we’ve come from these past few years.”
The club has also welcomed three new assistant coaches to their staff. Welshman Jason Brown brings with him his immense experience as a successful head coach of the combined services for the UK Military to round off his previous roles at other top level RAF and military teams as both a player and coach.
Steve Da Mare played for the Belgium national team and later went on to coach at the national level. Farrel Jacobs also joins the coaching team as a retired Sarries first team player and will take on the role of forwards coach. Jacobs hails from South Africa where he played first grade Premiership rugby in Cape Town as well earning provincial honours.
He began his coaching at the University of Cape Town before returning to the pitch to play again when work bought him to the Middle East.
You could forgive the UAE’s players for coming home from South Korea under a melancholic cloud following four defeats from five games on their return to the elite of Asia sevens rugby.
But having competed confidently with the continent’s best and emerged with a combined points deficit of only -12, the players are confident that coach Apollo Perelini’s belief in a top four finish is not fanciful.
The UAE lost their opening four games in Incheon on Saturday and Sunday, but a defeat by 22 points to Asia behemoths Japan was their worst, while they ended on a high by thrashing Chinese Taipei 31-5 to claim seventh place.
They conceded 100 points but also scored 88, and that fills the players with spirit heading into the second of three legs on the 2019 Asia Rugby Sevens Series in China in two week’s time.
“We’re heading back home with our heads high, we’ll fix these little errors and come back stronger on the next one,” insists livewire full-back/wing Jerry Kilicanasau, of Dubai Hurricanes.
“There were some close defeats. Just minor errors we need to work on to be better on the next one. The good thing is the boys know the other teams now so we’re expecting to do better in the next tournament.”
The view was shared by Justin Walsh, Kilicanasau’s former team-mate at Dubai Exiles, who said a few defeats could easily have been wins.
“The mood is generally pretty good as we pushed all the teams we played and showed that we are there to compete. We’re annoyed not to get more wins really,” he said.
After a 29-7 defeat to giants Japan, the UAE were beaten 24-14 by Japan before slender defeats to Sri Lanka (21-17) in their final pool game, while they were edged out 21-19 in the first knockout round by the Philippines.
They bounced back against Taipei and Walsh is already looking ahead to the Huizhou leg over September 14-15.
“We know what we need to try and do for the next few tournaments and keep working hard,” added Walsh.
“We could have beaten Sri Lanka and could have beaten China if it had clicked properly. We were disappointed with the losses because they could have been wins.”
Dubai Knights Eagles will be hosting an open day this Friday, September 6, following this summer’s merger between Dubai Eagles and Arabian Knights.
The club’s culture ensures everyone is welcome, whether they have experience in rugby or not, with registrations taking place at The Dome, Dubai Sports City, ahead of the official start of the upcoming season.
There will be plenty of entertainment taking place, with rugby games planned and a selection of food and beverage stands on offer. All those visiting will have the chance to meet with members of the club and see the facilities first-hand.
Vijay Sajjanhar, chief financial officer of Dubai Sports City, said: “Ahead of the new rugby season, I am sure all those signing up at our open day will have an active fun-filled time and see what we have to offer.
“The newly formed Dubai Knights Eagles speaks loudly in regards to our commitment at Dubai Sports City to ensure rugby as a sport flourishes in the UAE. I hope all of those signing up in September will be able to look back next summer on a season full of unforgettable memories.”
Also present at the open day will be Josh Ives, who was recently unveiled as the new head coach of the Knights Eagles, ahead of the club’s first official game of the season in the West Asia Premiership on Friday, October 4.
Ives has a strong rugby background having been involved with the Dubai Eagles since they were formed while he previously coached with Apollo Perelini’s Rugby Academy, where he was the head skills coach for six years.
His own personal playing experience includes the UAE 15s and 7s national sides, England rugby schools and Northampton Saints.
Speaking about the appointment, director of rugby Sean Carey said: “Our rugby club may only be recently formed, but Josh’s appointment and his commitment to continue from the Dubai Eagles shows just how serious we are about the upcoming season.
“Josh is a fantastic coach, with extensive experience as a coach in the UAE and as a player for the national team in both 15s and 7s. We believe his appointment is the right one to bring Dubai Knights Eagles success in the short, medium and long term.”
Preparation for the new season is already well under way for both the men’s and women’s teams. Training began back in July where both teams spent six weeks in the Powerbase Gym and The Dome focusing on rugby specific strength and conditioning programme.
With the weather now cooling, the Knights Eagles men’s side has begun conducting training sessions at Sports Park where the teams train every Monday and Wednesday at 7pm. The men’s side has a friendly scheduled against Al Ain this Friday, September 6, with 65 players having turned up for pre-season training already.
The women’s team is also in regular training with sessions taking place on Monday’s at 7pm and Wednesday’s at 8pm, with their first tournament scheduled to take place on Friday, September 27.
The new club’s kit has also been announced and will feature the orange of the Arabian Knights and the green of the Dubai Eagles. Avtrade has joined as a kit sponsor, alongside the club’s current sponsor ALTRAD.
The consolidation of the two clubs will create the third largest club in the region. For further information about the Knights Eagles visit the following link dkerugby.com or @dkerugby on Instagram and Facebook.