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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He may not have been part of the final installment as his adopted nation celebrated, but Jaen Botes was nonetheless able to revel in the UAE’s fine achievement of securing their Asia Rugby Sevens Series status for 2020.
Coach Apollo Perelini had made it his ambition to finish in the top four overall from the three legs of the 2019 edition, but competing in South Korea, China and Sri Lanka against seven other teams – who all train as professional outfits – was always going to be a monumental task.
In the end the UAE finished seventh overall, which means they qualify for next year’s series ahead of Chinese Taipei, relegated to the second tier Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy competition.
A strong showing in Colombo last weekend, on the series’ final leg, saw the UAE finish jointly on seven points with Taipei, but Perelini’s charges survived having amassed a far superior points difference across the three-leg series which has taken place over the last month.
And despite being in Japan at the Rugby World Cup with friends and family as his team-mates secured their status, Dubai Exiles powerhouse Botes was able to share in the joy.
“I unfortunately didn’t attend the last leg as I was away in Japan, however the boys and everyone involved put in a massive effort to secure our spot on the circuit for next year,” said a delighted Botes.
“It was a tough few weeks in camp and across all three legs we have set some standards but have a lot of work to do for next year.
“I’m sure everyone involved over the last few months has learned a lot and has had a decent amount of exposure to help with the preparation for next year.”
The UAE steadily improved over the three legs. They finished bottom of their pool in Incheon with just three points, although they did at least thrash Taipei in the seventh-eighth place play-off.
In Huizhou in mid-September they claimed five points in the pool but then slipped to Taipei in the Plate semi-finals before then falling to the Philippines in the play-off to come eighth.
The final weekend didn’t get off to a great start following a 34-0 defeat at the hands of Hong Kong at the Racecourse Stadium in Colombo.
But the UAE bounced back to beat Korea 24-17 in their next match. They went down to the tournament hosts early on Sunday, losing 35-10, but again recovered to win their maiden knockout game of the series, trouncing sorry Taipei 38-0 in the Plate semis.
That put them into the Plate final, guaranteeing them their best finish of the series, although they had to be content with sixth place after narrowly losing 19-14 to the Philippines.
South African Botes, for now, is concentrating on cheering his beloved Springboks to what he hopes will be Webb Ellis Cup success in the Land of the Rising Sun. But he is already casting an eye to the horizon and next year’s series.
“For myself it was an unbelievable experience to have played against all the professional athletes on the circuit and gave me motivation to work even harder now towards next year,” he added.
“The management and everyone involved behind the scenes has made it far more enjoyable than any other trip. I’m sure we will build our experience and look to better ourselves and look to grow as a squad over the next few months.
“It wasn’t the place we wanted to finish overall (seventh), however we have a lot of potential and we’re grateful for the opportunity to play the game we love and at such a high level. I’m sure we will come back next year and look to be top contenders on the Asia Sevens circuit.”
The UAE saved the best for last as they achieved a sixth-place finish at the Sri Lanka 7s, thereby securing their spot on the Asia Rugby Sevens Series for 2020.
It had been Apollo Perelini’s ambition to finish in the top four overall from the three legs of the 2019 edition but he and his players will be content with finishing seventh overall, which means they qualify for next year’s series ahead of Chinese Taipei who were relegated to the second tier Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy competition. They will be replaced next year by Malaysia.
A 34-0 defeat at the hands of Hong Kong at the Racecourse Stadium in Colombo on Saturday did not augur well for Perelini’s troops, but they bounced back to beat South Korea 24-17 in their next match – Luke Stevenson, Andrew Powell, Matt Richards and Niko Volavola scoring their tries.
They went down to the tournament hosts early on Sunday, Conor John Kennedy and Esekaia Dranibota going over in the losing 35-10 effort. They recovered to win their maiden knockout game of the series – and in some style too – trouncing Taipei 38-0 in the Plate semis.
Force of nature Sakiusa Naisau stormed over for a hat-trick while Kennedy, Andrew Semple and Justin Walsh also scored tries as the UAE set up a showdown with the Filipinos – Stevenson and Richards’ tries, both converted by the former, not quite enough as they were edged out 19-14.
But it is the grand prize of a place on next year’s circuit that will be valued above all else by all involved.
And Dubai Hurricanes speedster Jerry Kilicanasau confirmed the players are happy to have survived, which will give them a chance to prove next year that they belong at this level.
“It’s not a bad result for the last tour (of the series), it’s better than being last and to drop back to Tier 2,” he said.
“So we’re happy with the results for staying up in the league and competing with professional teams as we know that we’re meant to be up at that level.”
The UAE have steadily improved over the three legs, held over the course of the last month in Korea, China and Sri Lanka. They finished bottom of their pool in Incheon with just three points, although they did at least thrash Taipei in the seventh-eighth place play-off.
In Huizhou in mid-September they claimed five points in the pool but then lost to Taipei in the Plate semi-finals before then falling to the Philippines in the play-off to come eighth.
But in Colombo last weekend they put in their strongest performance, beating Korea in the pool before dispatching of Taipei with ease. They were pipped by the Philippines in the final but had done enough to secure their status for next year.
Continental heavyweights Japan and Hong Kong finished joint top overall with 32 points, with the UAE on seven with Taipei, but their better record over the three legs counted in their favour.
Asia Rugby Sevens Series 2019 – overall standings
Rank Team Korea China Sri Lanka Overall points
1 Japan 12 8 12 32
2 Hong Kong 10 12 10 32
3 China 8 10 8 26
4 Sri Lanka 5 7 7 19
5 South Korea 7 5 1 13
6 Philippines 4 2 5 11
7 UAE 2 1 4 7
8 Chinese Taipei 1 4 2 7