The new UAE rugby season is upon us, with the dreams and drama unfolding when the West Asia Premiership kicks off this weekend.
The league returns to seven teams after settling on six last season, with Dubai Tigers – the reigning two-time champions of the second-tier UAE Conference (now known as UAE Division 1) – finally making the step up.
They will pit their wits against the likes of compatriots Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Dubai Exiles, Jebel Ali Dragons and amalgamated Dubai Knights Eagles – but the main men are west Asia kings Bahrain.
And Bahrain is where we begin our preview of the opening round of action on Friday.
BAHRAIN THE TEAM TO BEAT
The Middle East is still referred to by many in the western world as a distant, far-away land, despite the discovery of oil turning many of the region’s countries into world superpowers.
But in terms of remoteness, being an island completely cut off from the mainland and surrounded on all sides by water, Bahrain remains the epitome of an outpost.
It used to be that way in sport, not just proximity, too. Before their West Asia Cup triumph in March 2018, it had been eight years since the club claimed a major honour.
Then, Louie Tonkin arrived in the summer of 2016. He left this summer after three years, taking up a job back in the UK with Exeter Chiefs. But the man mountain, who played basketball for Wales in his youth, made an even bigger impact on the isolated rugby club than even his 6ft 6ins frame.
Tonkin’s Bahrain made the West Asia Cup final in his maiden 2016/17 campaign, taught a harsh lesson by Harlequins in the final. They returned a year later and dished out their own tutorial to Exiles. It was the spark that ignited the club. Tonkin left them as the dominant force in the Gulf and they will be the men to beat in 2019/20.
The challenge for new head coach Adam Wallace and assistant Lindsay Gibson is simple. Keep the club at the top and fend off the challengers below.
WHO WILL LAY DOWN THE GAUNTLET?
The rest of the UAE’s elite won’t take kindly to the upstarts from the west relinquishing their grip on the biggest accolade on offer in Gulf rugby.
In truth there was little that could be done by the rest, however, to hang on to the coattails of behemoths Bahrain. Quins were the only team who looked like doing so, but even their decent 11 wins from 15 games barely made a dent in Bahrain’s near flawless record.
Bahrain’s 31-20 defeat in Dubai at the hands of Exiles in October slowed them down temporarily, but was their only blemish on a 14-win season that yielded 12 bonus points and a point difference of +397, nearly 300 more than Quins.
But there are whispers that the men from the capital will be stronger this term, and they will be hoping to capitalise on Tonkin’s departure.
There are bigger question marks over Exiles and Dragons. Having ended their own trophy drought with the Premiership title in 2017/18 following a remarkable final day victory in Bahrain, which made them champions ahead of Quins by a mere point, Dragons disappointed immensely last year.
They finished fourth, 31 points adrift of Bahrain, and lost more games (eight) than they won. They qualified for the play-offs but were hammered 56-7 by the juggernauts from out west. They have a new coach in Colin Phillips, namesake and former Wales scrum-half Mike’s tongue-wagging appointment now firmly in the past.
Exiles will also be one to watch, claiming third last year and then beating Quins 31-16 in the semi-final. They were the only team to inflict defeat on Bahrain and very nearly did so again in the showpiece, Tonkin’s troops edging them 23-21 in a nail-biter.
Like Dragons though, they must work on closing the gap overall.
KNIGHTS AND EAGLES JOIN FORCES, HOPE TO FLY
As ever ahead of the new season there are high expectations for some teams, low ones for others. But as the domestic rugby landscape returns to seven teams at the top tier, there is genuine intrigue and excitement surrounding the prospects of two newcomers.
Knights Eagles aren’t exactly rookies – Dubai Eagles came into existence two summers ago, and pulled off an instant coup when they finished sixth, above struggling Abu Dhabi Saracens, who they earned their only win over.
They only trailed Hurricanes in fifth by 15 points in what was a campaign that surpassed many people’s expectations. But it wasn’t quite a launchpad for Eagles, who went from soaring to crashing back down to earth last term, languishing in last following no wins and 15 defeats.
They shipped 692 points – a staggering average of 46.1 per game and 227 more than any other team – as their wings were clipped.
They’ve made a change in the off-season by joining forces with Arabian Knights – though they couldn’t come up with anything more catchy than Dubai Knights Eagles.
It’s a move with one eye on securing the future of both clubs in their previous guises in an ever-changing sporting landscape locally. The other will be trained on the more immediate future, and making an impact this season.
CAN TIGERS ROAR?
Dubai Tigers’ progress is another fascinating item to keep an eye on. A second-tier champion hasn’t graced the UAE’s top flight in five years, not since Al Ain Amblers in 2015/16.
The Garden City side charged to the 2014/15 UAE Conference title but after finishing bottom a year later, their dream ended in disaster when they dropped back down to the second tier after a huge defeat on the opening day of the 2016/17 UAE Premiership season.
Amblers had been ravaged of star players that summer by teams in the league above – the likes of Niko Volavola, Saki Naisau and Esekaia Dranibota all started out by springing to life in the Garden City before going on to star for the UAE under Apollo Perelini – and took the decision to self-relegate.
Life will certainly be tough in the top flight for Tigers, but they have enough pedigree and structure to thrive, or at least survive. They roared to the Conference title the past two seasons so will fancy their chances of at least giving it a good go.
The changing landscape of domestic rugby – clubs have struggled financially, even top dogs like Quins, amid the diminishing national economy – ensures the gap between the elite and the rest is not quite as much of a chasm as it once was.
Tigers will have more than a little hope they can avoid finishing bottom. If so they will have earned their stripes.
West Asia Premiership fixtures:
10:00 Dubai Hurricanes v Dubai Knights Eagles
16:00 Dubai Tigers v Bahrain
19:00 Jebel Ali Dragons v Abu Dhabi Harlequins
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