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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Jebel Ali Dragons crumbled last season but have been building for the future off the field

Matt Jones - Editor 11:39 03/10/2019
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Morgan Ward (c), Matt Henry (r) and Jonathan Hamilton (No8) are all significant departures at Dragons.

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.

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“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.

Mike Phillips (2nd l) departed midway through last season after only six months at the helm.

Mike Phillips (2nd l) departed midway through last season after only six months at the helm.

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 may be new to UAE rugby but knows success and Abu Dhabi Harlequins are old hat

Matt Jones - Editor 10:38 03/10/2019
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Niall Lear was named Quins' new director of rugby in July. (Pic courtesy of Falkirk Herald)

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.

Harlequins finished a difficult 2018/19 season on a high by lifting the UAE Premiership in March.

Harlequins finished a difficult 2018/19 season on a high by lifting the UAE Premiership in March.

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.

“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.”

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