All rugby clubs in the UAE of course want success on the pitch each season, and Jebel Ali Dragons are no different. But while they have returned to prominence in recent years, Dragons have also been steadily building for the future, growing at grass roots level, especially at youth and minis.
Until a few seasons ago there was not even a youth section to speak of at the club, formed in 1992.
But while Dubai rivals like Exiles, Hurricanes and Tigers among others have long boasted a thriving youth culture, Dragons now have a growing mini and youth set-up of their own, something established by former coach Henry Paul and expanded on last year by short-term former coach and ex-Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips.
Namesake Colin (no relation) came on board midway through last season after Welsh icon Phillips stepped down due to media work commitments back home, as well as launching his own academy out here.
And the new Phillips says the club’s aims are now more wide-ranging, although they still want to fight for trophies with the likes of reigning West Asia Premiership champions Bahrain, and this weekend’s opponents on the WAP’s opening weekend, long-time rivals Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
“The club aim to continue to build on the good work done in previous seasons, developing a family club offering rugby for the young and the older, the social to competitive player,” said Phillips.
“Making the environment fun on and off the pitch is a priority.”
Dragons claimed a thrilling title victory two seasons ago – a dramatic 36-32 bonus point win in Bahrain on the final day of the season delivering a first trophy to Jebel Ali in four seasons, and by the slenderest of margins, edging out Quins by one point.
But they disappointed in the defence of their crown last term, slumping to fourth place, 31 points off champions Bahrain, while they were thrashed 56-7 by the west Asia side in the ensuing play-off semi-final.
The transient nature of the Middle East means there has been a significant turnover in terms of both player departures and recruitment, while former UAE international and long-time Dragon Jonny MacDonald is also a huge loss to the coaching staff.
“Pleasingly we have lost some players through retirement/sabbatical or leaving Dubai and not to other clubs,” said Phillips.
“In the forwards we’ve lost Matt Henry, Stu Shaw, Luke Blane, Daniel Perry and Jonathan Hamilton. They have been replaced by Trae Gosling Hendrick Venter and Jasper Luer.
“In the backs there is less turnover with Ollie Johntone coming in, Morgan Ward is taking a short break hopefully. A significant loss to the club on and off the field is Jonnny who moved from Dubai with his work. The club owes Jonny a big thank you for his commitment and work ethic.”
The Premiership returns to seven teams for 2019/20 with the addition of UAE Conference (now UAE Division 1) champions Tigers, the first team to be promoted from the second tier in five seasons.
Phillips believes their elevation will add to a much tighter overall title race this term.
“I’m expecting another competitive season, it’s great to see Tigers moving up and growing the league,” he added.
“There will be no easy games. The quality of coaching and experience in teams across the board sets the season up to be an exciting one. We aim to play rugby that the players and the supporters enjoy.”
Dragons begin their campaign at home to Quins on Friday evening.
Know more about Sport360 Application