As champions you are always there to shot at, but after Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ historic season of success in 2016/17, Mike McFarlane knows there will be extra motivation for opponents to remove them from their lofty perch this term.
Quins won the holy trinity of trophies on offer in Gulf rugby last season – West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens titles – while they added the West Asia Cup and Western Clubs Champions League titles just to rubberstamp their dominance.
Dubai Exiles, Jebel Ali Dragons and Bahrain are likely to be the main pretenders to their throne this season, and McFarlane is preparing for a cup final on a weekly basis with opponents upping their game.
“Every year is tougher with clubs adding high class players,” said Mcfarlane ahead of Quins’ trip to Dragons on opening day tomorrow – a repeat of April’s UAE premiership final which sealed the quintuple.
“Every team wants our scalp so we know every week we face a cup final of sorts. But it’s down to the players to step up and deliver.”
Quins can retain one of their five trophies, the Champions League, if Bahrain beat Kandy in Sri Lanka on the same day as they face Dragons, or if Kandy fail to earn a bonus point win.
And the Englishman says his team are ready to run the gauntlet.
“We’ve had a competitive pre-season with the Champions League, with a lot of players having access to minutes,” he added.
“The players have been working hard on tweaking what we had in place last year as well as embedding a couple of new faces. We are lucky that we have such a great club culture which promotes fierce competition for places across four teams.
“Dragons will be a tough start but the players are physically ready and they know what is expected of them. We are excited to get going.”
Dragons’ South African full-back Ryno Fourie admits he and his team-mates are still hurting from that final defeat five months ago but admits it’s been a hugely positive summer in Jebel Ali, who are expected to progress from an improved 2016/17.
“We still hurting from last season’s final where we came up just short,” said the UAE international.
“Both Quins and Dragons have had a game under the belt and this coming weekend will be another test to come up against the best. I think our coach (Henry Paul) has done a phenomenal job of getting the Dragons back on track again.”
Dragons are celebrating their 25th year this season and Fourie admits it would be nice to mark the occasion with some silverware.
“I think the club is really putting in a lot of effort this year on and off the field to make our 25th year anniversary something to remember,” added Fourie whose side trounced league newcomers Dubai Eagles 59-5 in a friendly earlier this month.
“There has been a lot of new faces from all different levels and the numbers at training have been great so far to be able to put out three full squads again.
“Pre-season has been good for me personally after having a three-month break following international rugby.
“Our game against the Eagles was a good test to see how far we have come from pre-season and some opportunity to excute our new structure and game plans.”
Having won the double of UAE and West Asia Premiership in 2015/16, Exiles arguably endured the most woeful 2016/17 as they slid into mediocrity.
They finished a lowly fifth in the West Asia standings and fourth domestically, but have recruited well during the summer, with talented duo Jaen Botes and Lehan Koekemoer arriving from Sarries, while fromer team-mate Gio Fourie has also finally been prised from Dragons’ claws.
“Our pre-season went really well and I am very exited and can’t wait for the season to start,” said head coach Jacques Benade.
“Players are coming in and all the players from last year worked exceptionally hard and there will be some very difficult decisions made this week to pick the right combinations and starting line-up for Friday.
“We had 38 players traveling to Al Ain two weeks ago (for a pre-season game) and all the players played a minimum of 40 minutes to get that proper first contact session under our belt.
“Some of the new players really impressed as well as our players from the last two seasons. Competition is going to be tough but I am a big believer that good competition will always bring out the best of the players.
“There is a good atmosphere in the squad and the boys are happy where we are on and off the pitch.”
Exiles travel to Dubai Sports City tomorrow to take on Eagles, who are a bit of an unknown quantity having been created a matter of months ago.
“They’re definitely a bit of an unknown team,” added Benade.
“They will be 100 per cent up for this fixture especially playing at home as well. Forget what happened two weeks ago against the Dragons, I believe the Eagles will be a much different and improved team.
“We need to start really well on Friday and play with great intensity and accuracy. We have been working on some new structures and if the players can focus on their jobs and take ownership I believe we will be difficult to beat.
“It’s a long season ahead but it is very important to start well and play some good, positive rugby this weekend.”
Eagles’ landing in the top-tier has been met with skepticism by some, but head coach Pat Benson is not letting anything get him down ahead of a very special day for his side.
“I understand there’s going to be no easy games but I’m very excited for the weekend,” said Benson.
“I’m interested for the boys to have some more game time, especially against an established team like the Exiles. All the teams are established and well run but I’m proud of how the boys have trained and performed so far.
“Some have come from Conference and even Community League rugby but have really put their hands up and we’ve all put lots of hard work in behind the scenes.
The other game tomorrow pits two of the league’s struggling sides from the last two years against each other, with Dubai Hurricanes entertaining Abu Dhabi Saracens.
With Quins, Exiles, Dragons and Bahrain expected to be fighting among themselves for the silverware, Canes coach Mike Wernham will be happy for his side to fly under the radar.
“I hope so. I’ve always loved being an underdog,” said Wernham.
“This league is tough. There’s been a lot of rumblings about other teams, Exiles and Dragons, Quins and Bahrain, I relish that talk because I don’t think anyone expects us to do anything.”
Wernham replaced James Ham halfway through the previous campaign and although the PE teacher received an educational introduction, he feels that with an encouraging pre-season under his belt, Canes are set for a good campaign.
“Last season we managed to turn over two of the final top four, we lost at home to Bahrain and should have won. We lost to Quins by five points,” said head of secondary school sport at Jumeirah English Speaking School Wernham, who believes the club feels more like his now.
“It was a nice introduction, I learnt a lot in my half season in charge. I think the guys did too. We know we can be a good side. We’ve got new players, they’ve trained hard and I do think we’re in a good place.
“When you come into a job halfway through, you’re already dealing with a full season of what’s been done in the past. Mindsets are hard to change.
“I didn’t want to change the world. I saw strengths and weaknesses. Behaviour, consistency and the scrum were issues.
“There’s been some more firm words this summer and it may be the PE teacher inside of me, but the expectations and standards of a Canes player is clear, and the lads know what is acceptable and what’s not.”
In addition to fighting near the foot of the West Asia and UAE Premiership last term, Saracens have seen a raft of player departures this summer, while they were rocked unexpectedly by the loss of their home pitch when Al Ghazal Golf Club closed suddenly at the beginning of August.
There were fears that the club would struggle to maintain one side, let alone a second team, but chairman Jay Danielson and a group of remaining senior players decided to dig in and fight for the Sarries cause – a trait that has been typical of their young existence.
“It feels like a new era at the club, it’s really positive,” said Australian Danielson. Everyone’s digging in. There’s a lot of new faces who are happy to be playing rugby.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces in and they’re bringing down their mates. At every training it seems like there’s a new face and it’s a really good vibe. We have real depth in the backline, more than I’ve seen at Sarries in a long time.”
The tireless work put in over the summer by a clutch of senior players like captain Johnny Taylor, Stephen Hamilton, Phanta Quinsile and Andy Baker has reaped reward, with as much as 60 per cent of the team to play Canes expected to be new arrivals.
“There’s been a big drive over the summer of internal and external recruitment. We’re very excited,” said Danielson.
“it’s a pat on the back for the senior players. There’s been a really significant drive from the senior group who got to work over the summer. They realised we needed to pull our finger out and as a result we pushed hard on the recruitment.
“They went to networking events, Facebook advertising, speaking to people in the bar with their Sarries shirts on, you name it, any way to get people down, and it’s been really successful.”
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