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.
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