New Abu Dhabi Harlequins coach Niall Lear got his regime off to a stunning start with a 56-16 triumph over old foes Jebel Ali Dragons as the West Asia Premiership season got under way.
The Scot marvelled at the performance of his side, who ran away with the game in the latter stages, admitting that he feels things can “only get better” as the season goes on.
But Quins weren’t the highest scorers on opening night last Friday as Dubai Hurricanes stormed to a 58-10 triumph over amalgamated outfit Dubai Knights Eagles at The Sevens.
Elsewhere, promoted team Dubai Tigers – two-time champions of the UAE Conference – gave a good account of themselves in a 39-5 defeat to defending champions Bahrain, who began life without Louie Tonkin with victory.
“It was a great evening,” said Lear, who only arrived in July and is the first permanent replacement for Mike McFarlane who departed halfway through last season.
“It was great to see the boys finally in action and putting into practice some of the things we have worked on. If someone had said to me opening day we’d win 56-16 I would have bitten their hand off so as a club we are happy, but need to keep pushing.”
The former Connacht A, Scottish Schools and Scotland Under-18 international added: “We came out of the blocks pretty quickly and scored three quick tries in the first 20 minutes. As is normally the case when you run into an early lead, we fell away a little bit from there and allowed Dragons back into the game.
“A combination of us looking for that miracle ball or making uncharacteristic mistakes and some class play from them. The final 20 minutes were really good and as the game opened up a bit we ran away with things.
“So many positives to take from that kind of performance, the great thing is that it can only get better and that’s the goal for us, consistent improvement.
“Against some other teams if we played like that we would have been punished and it’s great that the boys identified that.”
Bahrain’s forwards coach Lindsay Gibson paid tribute to new boys Tigers following the champions’ victory at Dubai Sports City.
“It was a tough game and a good win for us,” added the Scottish prop, who is assisting head coach Adam Wallace following Tonkin’s return back to the UK to work with Exeter Chiefs.
“The main objective was to obviously get a bonus point and on the way to hopefully defend our league title.
“The Tigers boys were outstanding to be fair, I thought they were brilliant. You can tell they’ve got a good base level there and they’re used to winning. They made it a real tough game for us, especially the first 30 minutes.”
West Asia Premiership results
Dubai Hurricanes 58 Dubai Knights Eagles 10
Dubai Tigers 5 Bahrain 39
Jebel Ali Dragons 16 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 56
Bahrain picked up their first prize in almost a decade last year to establish themselves as the new force in Gulf rugby. The problem with gaining prominence is that it then puts a target upon your back.
That target may take some time to be acquired given Bahrain’s remote location in the Middle East – a plane journey required for UAE opponents to get there, while the island is completely surrounded on all sides by water.
And yet scrutiny on Bahrain will be far more intense this season after they beat all their UAE rivals to lift the coveted West Asia Premiership last term – a first piece of silverware in eight years.
Revolutionary coach Louie Tonkin has gone after turning them from also-rans into giants. But he has left behind a legacy that friends and long-time Bahrain players Adam Wallace and Lindsay Gibson hope to prolong.
Influential centre and captain Wallace moves into Tonkin’s head coach role, while barrelling Scottish hooker Gibson assumes the forwards’ coaching role.
“Obviously we understand the attitude towards us has changed and we are no longer the underdogs and everyone will want to knock us off top spot,” said Gibson, ahead of the Premiership’s return this Friday.
“However our goals remain the same, we still want to push for that top spot and would love to have another home final and bring home the silverware again.”
Bahrain are used to travel, given they play exclusively against UAE sides, and they will touch down in Dubai for Friday’s season opener facing a new opponent in promoted second-tier champions Dubai Tigers. And Gibson is expecting the team coached by New Zealand-born ex-Italy international Aaron Persico to fully contribute to a hotly contested 2019/20 campaign.
“We are a little bit out of the loop over here in Bahrain so I’m not too sure who has recruited and what players have moved on from the clubs in the UAE,” said Gibson.
“Based on last year’s league we know all teams will be looking to push on and Dubai Exiles will be out to win the league after a narrow loss in the final.
“With Tigers accepting promotion we know they must be confident of competing and the Dubai Knights Eagles joining will also have strengthened the first team – we could be looking at a very competitive league this season.”
Bahrain’s own recruitment drive has been hit by the loss of Tonkin, as well as several of last year’s star-studded squad departing for pastures new. But the champions have also been discovering new opportunities further east.
Gibson added: “Unfortunately we have lost a couple of big characters from the squad in Luke Radley who has left for work in the UK and Rob Bennett who is off to Bali then Australia for a year’s traveling.
“Unfortunately some of last season’s recruits turned down job offers in Bahrain to pursue other opportunities around the globe.
“With these big departures this season we have looked at a different recruitment avenue and have used some of our contacts in the southern hemisphere to help find lads who are keen to pursue a different career and rugby opportunities.
“As expected they will add something different to what we currently have here in Bahrain.
“We have also promoted a group of players from our second team in order to fill some gaps in the squad and they will get plenty of game-time throughout the year having impressed in pre-season.
“Louie is obviously a massive departure and has impacted the squad with Adam Wallace stepping away from playing to fulfil the head coaches role.”
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.”
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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.
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.”