The UAE Conference kicks off Friday with this year’s competition wide open after Al Ain Amblers’ dominance was finally rewarded with promotion.
Relegated from the Premiership in what was a tumultuous campaign both on and off the field, Dubai Wasps will be the team with a target on their backs.
It is, though, a new era at Wasps, who have dropped the Xodus from their name and also have a new head coach in Mike Pugsley. The 30-year-old Welshman is aiming to take the club in a very new direction.
“We’ll be starting from scratch, new plays, new moves, new everything,” said the former Sharjah Wanderers man.
“I’ve been impressed with the boys, especially their attitude. They’re keen and have worked hard.
“There’s talent in the squad. I don’t see why we won’t compete. We’ll have a decent squad and competition for places will be tight.”
After a trying season, Pugsley knows that honesty and variety is key.
“The first thing I said when I arrived was that we need to instil honesty to be successful,” he said.
“I’ll be honest with them if they can be honest with themselves and me.
— Sport360° (@Sport360) July 16, 2015
“Last year boys got bored. Hopefully I can bring new ideas and innovation to training, modernise the game, but keep that level of intensity we’re going to need and provide that level of structure and game plan that will allow us to be successful.”
Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds, beaten in the Conference’s Top 6 final by Amblers, will also hope to be in the mix, along with Heartbeat Tigers, Dubai Hurricanes 2nds, Sharjah and Arabian Knights, all of whom finished in the top half of the Conference table and competed in the Top 6.
One team also hoping to muscle in are Dubai Sharks, who finished eighth last year before going on to lose the Plate final of the Bottom 6 to Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds.
The club with the motto ‘serious rugby, seriously social’ are taking their rugby a little more seriously these days.
New joint head coach Dan Gawn said: “Sharks started off very social. We’ve moved on from that. We still have great fun and are very social, but we train first, play, then have the social.
“There was a time when players would mix social with playing. We can’t do that. We’ve got to be dedicated. An improvement on last year is what we’re looking for. We certainly can’t go backwards.”
The capital city duo of Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Saracens are blazing a trail in domestic rugby and will go toe-to-toe once more as the UAE Premiership returns this weekend.
Reigning champions Quins will be out to defend the crown they won last season, while Sarries’ arc of improvement as the season wore on was crowned superbly by beating Doha to claim the West Asia Cup in March.
With Quins also winning the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens in December, the Abu Dhabi duo hoovered up three of the four major rugby honours available last season.
There has since been a massive sea-change in the league, with all six Premiership clubs changing head coach during the summer, as well as many saying goodbye to and welcoming in a raft of new players.
Heineken Cup-winner Jeremy Manning has stepped down from his coaching role at Quins, but new head coach Mike McFarlane is excited for the new campaign.
“The atmosphere around the club is fantastic,” said the Englishman, a former player.
“We have an exceptional array of talent which marries well with the boys’ relentless work rate. We’ve had a productive pre-season and can’t wait to transfer that onto the pitch.
“We are looking for honours and to enjoy our running rugby style.”
Confidence is also high at Sarries. The Al Ghazal club really announced themselves last season after their stunning West Asia Cup triumph and they have the chance to continue that fine form with a dream start to the new season.
Sarries travel to Zayed Sport City to take on Quins in a mouthwatering opening fixture on Friday.
“It’s a great test to start the season, but a game we go into with a lot of confidence,” said Sarries joint head coach Stephen Hamilton.
“We’ve brought on board several new players which have really added to the strength of the team. Our pack, meanwhile, has retained its strength and we will look to dominate in the set piece.”
All this success cannot have sat well 150km down the road in Dubai, where Hurricanes, Exiles and Jebel Ali Dragons are determined to right some wrongs.
Dragons found themselves in alien territory last season, going from prince to the paupers of UAE rugby. They have lost the influential Sean Crombie, but welcome back familiar faces in Imad Reyal, Adam Telford and Andy Russell who return after injury-ravaged 2014-15 campaigns, while former Leinster No8 Richie Leyden has also signed.
“We want to wipe the slate clean and get back to winning ways,” said director of rugby Paul Hart. “Quins and Sarries will be the favourites but we believe we’re significantly stronger.”
— Apollo Perelini (@Apollo11Rugby) September 19, 2015
Canes, meanwhile, will be looking to exorcise some demons. They stormed to first place in the Premiership but came unstuck in the final, thrashed 39-19 by a resurgent Quins. After that, their season quickly unravelled, finishing fourth in the Gulf Top Six.
There was even less joy at Exiles, the oldest club in the UAE, who failed to qualify for the GT6. They recovered to win the Gulf Conference but last season was a major disappointment.
Elsewhere, in the Garden City, Al Ain Amblers are back in the big time and are certainly not here to make up the numbers. Head coach Andrew Rouvi is well aware that the Premiership is a whole different beast to the UAE Conference, in which Amblers sauntered to the title last season undefeated.
They won 15 of 15 games in the Conference and although Rouvi knows they will not achieve a flawless 100 per cent record again, he is adamant that his talented side will ruffle some feathers.
“We’re not daunted by the Premiership, definitely not like we were when we were last there a few years ago,” said the New Zealander. “Our goal is to get the right structures in place to stay there this time and be competitive. It’s a step up but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.”
UAE captain Niall Statham says there is a real sense of belief that the team can break into the coveted top eight nations in Asia at the second round of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series.
The UAE endured a nightmare start to the opening leg of the Series in China at the beginning of the month as they were whitewashed by both Hong Kong and the Philippines on day one in Qingdao.
However, they rallied on day two and beat Chinese Taipei and Singapore to claim victory in the Bowl final, which saw them claim an overall finish of ninth, one place outside their dream of the top eight.
They want to end the series as one of the core eight teams in Asia going into 2016 and Scotsman Statham says the team heading to Thailand this weekend believe they can do it.
“We’re really excited. There’s a real sense of belief in the camp and a great work ethic,” said the 29-year-old Jebel Ali Dragons flanker.
“We know we can shock a few people and the goal is to break into that top eight. The build-up has been positive, with everyone staying late after practice to work on extra fitness, so we’re really positive.”
Eight of the 12-man squad played in Qingdao, Devante Steele, Charlie Sargent, Hareb Al Azri and Adel Al Hendi the four newcomers.