Dubai Eagles keep the faith as they prepare for Abu Dhabi Saracens clash

Matt Jones 28/09/2017
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They endured a rude awakening to life at the elite level but their 11-try thrashing at the hands of Dubai Exiles hasn’t scared off the Dubai Eagles.

They were thumped 85-8 on the West Asia Premiership’s opening day last Friday – their first competitive fixture since being created this summer – enough to have anyone wondering if starting a club from scratch and throwing themselves into the lion’s den was the brightest idea.

Head coach Pat Benson, however, insists Eagles have been holding their heads high this week.

“The mood in the camp is good,” said Benson.

“The boys were happy to get the first game out of the way. It was a chance to play the first competitive game and we were able to look at footage of ourselves for the first time which makes my job a bit easier, giving feedback.”

Eagles will welcome Abu Dhabi Saracens to Dubai Sports City tomorrow and, having been set up around six weeks ago and with just seven players turning up to the first training session, Benson is eying it as an opportunity for further progress.

“We’re looking forward to this weekend,” he added.

“We’ve not put any more emphasis on this game, it’s just another chance to play and we’re grateful for the opportunity to play against these teams because they’ve been doing it a long time.
“They’ve been successful at what they’re doing so it’s nice to test ourselves. We’re using the games to give as many players as we can exposure to Premiership rugby and the lads just want that experience.”

As for Sarries, they’ve been preoccupied with their own, significant problems. Having had a plethora of players pilfered this summer, they were dealt an unexpected blow at the beginning of August when they were left without a home when Al Ghazal Golf Club was closed.

There were fears the club could even fold but Sarries defied the odds and confidence is swarming around the club – despite a 28-13 defeat on the opening day last week to Dubai Hurricanes.

“It was a game we should have won with the very potent backline we have, we just didn’t give them enough opportunities,” said chairman Jay Danielson.

“But it was great to have a team out there and the guys are really enjoying it which is what matters. There’s a few positions we are still searching for some depth in, but overall everyone is excited about the season. We don’t plan on being whipping boys.”

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Abu Dhabi Harlequins ready for battle as tough start to season continues against Bahrain

Matt Jones 28/09/2017
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Lindsey Gibson (l) of Bahrain and Andrew Semple of Quins clash last season

The mettle of quintuple champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins is certainly being tested in the early stages of the season as they head to Bahrain Friday.

Mike McFarlane’s side got their West Asia Premiership title defence off to a thrilling start last week as they earned a last-gasp 34-33 victory at Jebel Ali Dragons on opening night – Luke Stevenson’s touchline conversion beyond the 80th minute sealing an epic triumph.

And the champions are certainly not being allowed to parade easily into the early part of the 2017/18 campaign, with a second tough fixture in a week with a trip west to take on Louie Tonkin’s men in red.

But McFarlane says his side are relishing another big game, and he is expecting a huge battle.

“We have a squad travelling to do a job and will go toe to toe with them in search of another win on the road,” said the Quins coach.

“The players relish being tested and the capacity both physically and mentally is incredible. I’m sure the game will bring leaders to the fore in what will be a battle.”

Quins retained one of the five trophies they hoisted last term without even playing last week when Bahrain did them a favour and beat Kandy 24-23 in Sri Lanka – a result which ensured Quins held onto their Western Clubs Champions League title.

And McFarlane had plenty of praise for Tonkin and his charges – who pushed Quins close in almost all their encounters last season, while a 36-32 win was required to open their Champions League defence at the start of the month.

“We go to Bahrain in a game last year which on reflection was probably our toughest,” added McFarlane.

“They’ve got an excellent coach and always prep well. It’s big game after big game at the moment. It’s a hard way to start the Premiership but to get a win away under our belts against such a strong Dragons team is excellent.”

Defeats of 17-15 and 31-25 were evidence of the thin gap that exists between the two sides last year – the only anomaly a 45-17 thrashing in the closing stages of the Premiership campaign as Tonkin rested players heading into the West Asia Cup final.

He hasn’t had much luck against McFarlane but Tonkin admits he relishes competing against him and Quins.

“We really enjoy playing them,” said the Welshman.

“They’re always good contests and they’re good guys, coached incredibly well and it’s good for us to measure ourselves against the best in the league early on.

“We know how good a side they are and they’ll come here deservedly as favourites, but we’ll just try and get our own performance right.

“Everyone’s excited about the first league game. We’ve had a good Champions League campaign and three games altogether so we’re happy about that. We’re hoping to improve on those performances.

“If we make as many errors against them as we did three weeks ago, they’ll beat us, so we have to be much better. We need to do the basics well.”

Bahrain skipper Adam Wallace misses the game and could be out for two months after injuring himself against Kandy.

“We’ve picked up some significant injuries, captain Adam Wallace has damaged his MCL so could be out for eight weeks,” added Tonkin.

“It’s a huge loss for us and him but gives him a chance to focus on his coaching. But we also have a better squad to cater for the injuries.”

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Dave Knight feels progress is being made at Dubai Hurricanes after a few barren years

Matt Jones 26/09/2017
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Dave Knight is hoping Dubai Hurricanes can fly under the radar and surprise a few people this season with a semblance of a solid structure on and off the field at the club for the first time in quite some time.

Canes swept to first place in the UAE Premiership three years ago, winning four of their five games. It earned them a place in the Premiership final but there, at their home ground of The Sevens, they met a resurgent Abu Dhabi Harlequins who dished out a 39-19 beating.

It was an unfortunate sign of things to come for Canes, whose season unraveled after that. It’s a tumble that continued for the next two seasons too as coaches Ross Mills and James Ham have come and gone.

But with UAE international Knight returning for his second season as skipper and PE teacher director of rugby Mike Wernham, who replaced Ham midway through last season, feeling he now has more control, a calm seems to have settled over the club.

And Knight feels a corner could be turned in 2017/18.

“I think everyone seems to write us off,” said the flanker when asked if Canes can surprise opponents this term.

“At the end of the day we’ve shown we can compete on our day. Maybe we’re not consistent enough and it’s about getting consistency into our game. That’s what the best teams have, it’s what Quins have, Bahrain have.

“We don’t have the same funds and recruitment style as them but what we do have is a good coaching set-up, good facilities and good boys. So we hope to kick on. I’m positive but realistic also.”

With the game in the UAE growing and developing at an exponential rate, it’s vital every off-season that despite needing down time, clubs and players don’t take their eye off the ball, otherwise they risk getting left behind.

Canes have perhaps been guilty of that in previous years, but not this summer. Before taking to the training pitches at the start of August Wernham had cut his own summer holidays short to get cracking on a blueprint for the season ahead, with players starting gym sessions in early July in a bid to get a head-start on their opposition.

“Teams coming back earlier and earlier these days for pre-season and it’s getting more important,” added Knight.

“We started strength and conditioning in July and I thought that was early, but then Quins came back in June and Exiles too, so it is getting more and more to that level. There may be no break between games in a few years. But everyone’s been working hard.

“I think it’s just a bit more structured now (under Mike). It’s exciting. Things have been building since July so I’m just ready for it to start.”

Canes coach Mike Wernham

Canes coach Mike Wernham

After replacing UAE teammate Daniel Perry a year ago, the understated Knight is hoping to for more success in his second campaign as captain.

“We had a leadership meeting at the end of the season and everyone was like ‘yeah, we want Knighty to do it again’, so it was an easy decision for me to make,” added Knight.

“I don’t think we achieved what I wanted to last year. Bringing in Mike kind of steadied the ship and at the end of the season we started to get closer to the results we want. So now, hopefully, with a full pre-season under us we can kick on.”

Last season was always going to be a learning curve for Wernham. But with a solid pre-season complete and an opening day 28-13 victory over Abu Dhabi Saracens last weekend, he is looking forward to a full season with the club under his command.

He said: “This season in comparison to last we started with two losses. I personally thought we weren’t prepared as what we should have been from pre-season. This summer I cut short my summer holiday to make sure that wasn’t going to happen.

“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.

“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.

“Last season I saw strengths and weaknesses but I didn’t want to change the world. We know we can be a good side. We’ve got new players, they’ve trained hard and I think we’re in a good place.”

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