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 They have been replaced by Trae Gosling Hendrick Venter and Jasper Luer.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.
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Niall Lear is keenly aware that success and tradition go hand in hand at Abu Dhabi Harlequins, and the new head coach claims this year will be “no different”.
The Scotsman had a whirlwind introduction to life at his new club when he took his first training session hours after stepping off the plane into the scorching summer heat of the UAE at the end of July.
The former Connacht A, Scottish Schools and Scotland Under-18 international has now had two months to acclimatise – or at least try – and lay the foundations for the future at Quins and prepare for the new West Asia Premiership season.
The 2019/20 campaign begins at begins at Jebel Ali Dragons this weekend as the WAP kicks off on Friday with a mouthwatering clash between two sides who will be considered among the title favourites.
Dragons were crowned champions in thrilling fashion two years ago – at Quins’ expense – but the capital city side have been the main men in recent years, helped largely by the culture spread and control exerted by Lear’s predecessor Mike McFarlane.
He left midway through last season, with Lear his permanent replacement after the reins were handed to players Craig Nutt and Luke Stevenson as well as assistant coach Rory Greene on a temporary basis.
He may have had to quickly get used to life in the desert, but Lear is not expecting a tranquil bedding-in period.
“For me it’s been a whirlwind start to the year getting used to Abu Dhabi and more importantly Quins,” said Lear, who took his first coaching session at Zayed Sports City just 12 hours after landing in the UAE two months ago.
“It’s a great club with good people about. I think myself and those involved at the club have very similar views and aims. We want the club to be challenging for honours this year. It’s a club that traditionally has done very well and this year we hope to be no different.
“Obviously this is a unique environment which can be more transient than other places but it’s something that all clubs have to deal with.”
Ahead of the new season Quins have lost flying Fijians Emosi Ratuvecanaua and Kini Natuna. Quins have enjoyed much success in the last decade but have suffered through losses of key players in recent summers, so Lear is delighted the club has retained a core element of its 2018/19 squad – including the likes of pivotal half-back pairing Stevenson and Andrew Semple.
Fly-half Stevenson was joined in the UAE sevens squad by scrum-half Semple for the first time during the recent Asia Rugby Sevens Series and Lear is counting on their experience to assist him and Quins as the season progresses.
“In terms of additions and departures, we have lost Emosi and Kini who are two players who have given a great deal to the club,” he added.
“They go with everyone’s best wishes and I know the boys are looking forward to facing them throughout the year.
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“We have bags of experience and we are lucky we have a squad that have played together for a numbers of years. They have bought into everything that I have brought with me and hopefully there will be a few subtle changes to the Quins way out on the pitch.”
Quins always head into any campaign among the favourites, but Lear is expecting a more wide open fight for the title than the relative procession enjoyed by Bahrain last season – Quins were their only challengers, but even they finished 13 points adrift at the top of the table.
“I know the league will be incredibly competitive. From what I have seen, teams are improving every season and after last year everyone is hot on the heels of Bahrain,” said Lear, whose playing achievements included representing Connacht A from 2008-09, Scottish Schools, Scotland U18s and being part of the Scotland Sevens training squad.
“I’m confident that if we get things right then we will definitely be there or there abouts come the business end of the season. It’s going to be tough but hopefully competition brings the best out of us.”
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