Seven years ago there was no Dubai Tigers rugby club.
Roll that clock forward to last Friday and they had a men’s first team taking on the reigning champions in the West Asia Premiership, a second team competing in the UAE Division 1 (formerly UAE conference), and that morning a large proportion of their 600 mini and youth players had taken part in training. Yes, that’s 600 youngsters – the largest offering in UAE rugby. You can add an active touch section, and ladies set-up to this.
It’s an astonishing rise for a club built on a very simple idea – the love of the game.
When Shane Thornton got the wheels in motion back in 2013, few would have forecast the trajectory the club has gone on to take. Built on the foundations of quality coaching, player improvement and an enjoyment of the game at all levels, the club is flourishing.
Heading up the coaching today is former Italy international Aaron Persico. A man with 56-international caps to his name and a professional pedigree that saw him play in England, France and Italy, as well as at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
As an ex-player establishing himself in the world of coaching, Tigers offer the perfect home.
“The club has a real ethos of development,” says Persico, who is entering his third season with the club. “There has always been a focus on quality coaching and helping players improve. We always want to get the senior players involved at all levels and drive learning through enjoyment.”
Such has been the development of the junior set-up, they are now branching out within schools and the rugby community.
“Taking on the principles of Tigers’ rugby we have created Evolution Rugby Skills Academy to develop rugby within the school programme, and we are already working with Arcadia, King’s Dubai, JBS, and King’s Al Barsha,” added Persico.
The men’s first team went two season unbeaten, claiming two Conference titles in that time, and ultimately gaining promotion to the West Asia Premiership. And they are relishing the opportunity to test themselves against the best the region has to offer.
“When we won the Conference the first time round we looked at the player profile and chose not to go up, but now we have strengthened, have more depth, and are ready to compete while still playing a brand of positive, attractive rugby,” explains Persico.
“We asked the rugby community for advice, the players were keen and we felt it was the right thing to do, to help UAE rugby too.”
A 39-5 defeat to Bahrain on the opening day was filled with positives. “Friday was a really enjoyable day out for the boys,” says Persico. “There was a lot we can take away from the game against a very good side. There are things we can work on, but it was a great foundation for our season.”
It was a similar tale for the seconds who went down to a strong Abu Dhabi Saracens outfit, but showed enough to be confident the building blocks are in place for a positive campaign.
From the outside looking in it is an unconventional approach at Tigers; the summer has consisted of no fitness sessions, and training is limited to one session per week – something the coaching group feels brings the best out of the players. But there is one recurring theme – developing skills and enjoyment.
“We have to adapt because players are busy with work and other commitments,” explains Persico. “A lot of planning goes into making sure we get the most out of sessions, and the boys like having one a week. We want them to enjoy their rugby, develop their skills and want to have the ball in their hands and ultimately have fun – obviously they are encouraged to do their fitness work in their own time.”
At 41-years-of-age, Persico admits he would like to spend his Fridays watching from the sidelines as the two senior teams take on the challenge of new divisions, however he’s happy to fill in where necessary.
“I always wanted to give back to the game of rugby,” he says. “We have a great community here with many diverse cultures and I count myself very fortune to be part of it. For now I want to focus on my coaching and the next part of my career, striving to develop as a coach and also help develop players.
“I also want to earn the respect of my team-mates, and do the best for the team and that may mean filling in playing when necessary. Although I have not long had a little boy and it would be nice if he could see me play at least once.
“We have a lot to look forward to over the coming season, and hopefully we can take the opportunities that are in front of us.”
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.”