Dubai Knights Eagles merger the least of issues for new club during off-season, says Dale Welch

Matt Jones - Editor 13:08 03/10/2019
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An off-season merger sounds like it would involve a painstaking process and not be the smoothest of transitions, but Dale Welch insists the merger was the easy part.

Dubai Eagles and Arabian Knights joined forces in June to create Dubai Knights Eagles, which in terms of sheer numbers has swelled to make the new venture one of the biggest clubs in the UAE.

Knights had been established in UAE rugby circles for more than a decade and always boasted a strong mini and youth section. Eagles swooped on to the UAE rugby season just two summers ago and, while they’d struggled to adjust to the elite level in the senior men’s game, their ladies side had soared. They lifted the Gulf Women’s title at the Dubai Rugby Sevens in December 2017, just six months after forming.

Both former clubs played their home games at Dubai Sports City, and decided a merger made perfect sense to safeguard their futures. So, job done then? Not quite. New club captain Welch said the merger was the easy part.

“Announcing a merger and changing kit colours was the easy part. A huge amount of work took place in the off-season to plan the coaching team, player integration, player recruitment and even merging things like websites and social media platforms,” said Welch.

“A huge task for Sean Carey (director of rugby), Louise Palmer (chairperson) and their leadership team. But we’re ready to go and can’t wait for the first game of the season.”

With Eagles struggling to get a claw into the elite men’s game following just one win in 27 games from their first two seasons and Knights – although boasting a thriving junior set-up – flailing at senior level, something needed to be done.

And Welch says the club can now look forward with hope as they look to be competitive at all levels in 2019/20, with former Eagles player and UAE international Josh Ives leading the charge as head coach.

“With over 300 youths, three senior men’s and two senior ladies teams all registered before October we’re positioned to be competitive end-to-end throughout the UAE rugby landscape,” he added.

“Aside from the men’s Division 1 (formerly UAE Conference) team, there was little overlap between the previous Knights and Eagles clubs, so we’ve dovetailed beautifully and are raring to go. In fact, the ladies’ campaign has already started and they’re in great form.

“There are many little areas to still iron out as the new set-up gets going, but there’s a great sense of community and positivity. Just being around the youth coaches on a Friday and Saturday and you understand the passion for this game.

“Winning is not a club’s purpose, it’s a result. Making a difference to a kid’s self-confidence is why we do this. Better people make better rugby players, not my words but Steve Hansen’s.”

Merging brings with it obvious benefits in terms of securing additional player numbers. And while comings and goings are part and parcel of expat life, including sport, Welch is content with retaining the spine of the management, coaching and player teams.

“I would be hard-pressed to point out where pre-season could have gone better,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to a more competitive season.

Josh Ives is head coach at Knights Eagles.

Josh Ives is head coach at Knights Eagles.

After finishing second bottom and then bottom as Eagles at West Asia Premiership level in 2017/18 and 2018/19, Knights Eagles have their work cut out this season to avoid the wooden spoon again as promoted second tier champions Dubai Tigers will offer a stern challenge – to Knights Eagles as well as the established elite.

“The mandate of the UAE Rugby Federation is to grow the game, so the addition of another club to the West Asia Premiership was the right one,” added Welch, whose side begin the WAP season this Friday with a daunting trip to The Sevens to take on revamped Dubai Hurricanes.

“Not only is it giving the UAE national team a greater depth of top-tier players to select from but the mid-tier competitions are now balanced after having been bloated with far too many fixtures in recent years.

“With fewer fixtures and more rest time, we can expect the strongest teams being put out there and reduction in games being called off, in the lower tiers in particular.”

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