The story behind Jebel Ali Dragons as rugby club celebrate 25 years of camaraderie and success in the UAE

Matt Jones 15:21 18/09/2017
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It might have been a summer of struggle for the UAE’s rugby teams, but Jebel Ali Dragons are firing on all cylinders as they get set for a special season celebrating their 25th year.

They appointed rugby league and union icon Henry Paul as head coach a year ago and he proved to be Dragons’ talisman as the club returned to something approaching prominence in 2016/17 after a few seasons chained and in the dark.

Fellow clubs are struggling; Dubai Wasps were forced to fold due to falling player numbers and loss of sponsors, giants Abu Dhabi Harlequins are struggling to pay pitch fees and for flights to defend their Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title while Dubai Sharks and Arabian Knights have, as yet, nowhere to play. Dragons, meanwhile, are flickering back into life, signing a seven figure, five-year contract extension with sponsors Hesco.

Yet, not so long ago, things weren’t looking so bright. In 2000, just eight years after the club was established, they almost folded – with player numbers down to single figures.

Former Dragons player coach Paul Austin’s villa was the venue for an emergency summit, a rallying call to arms where all club members were called upon to attend in order to thrash out the club’s very existence. Four people turned up.

“Not many people will know that. With training numbers in single figures many wanted the club to fold,” remembers Austin, a Dragon from 1995 to 2007. “At a guess I think the four were Andy Jones, Mike Lalor, Jon Ombler and myself. We decided that we had to move to Division 1 from Division 2 to continue to exist, but with no sponsors or players the future didn’t look bright.”

Coach Henry Paul.

The foursome’s brilliant solution to secure the future of the club they loved? Lie to the game’s governing body of course, at that time the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union.

“We decided to lie and claim we had 30 players and a large sponsorship deal in the works and hope they went for it,” added Austin. “Luckily they did and we four were promoted to Division 1 for the new season. First up, Abu Dhabi Bats, the league champions.

“Just in the manner I was recruited, we headed to bars and found every ex-rugby player or big-ish bloke we could and got 16 for the Friday game. Amazingly, we drew 3-3 and from there the new era of the Dragons started.”

It’s characters like Austin, Welshman Jones, Lalor and Ombler, club founders John Fish and a man simply referred to as ‘Blaster’, ex-treasurer Keith Byrne, former captain Paul Smith, manager Dave Osseman, Roy Green, who was a chairman who moonlighted as a photographer, Tim Wood, another former chairman, and extreasurer Matt ‘Fester’ Seale that kept Dragons together during their formative years.

They sound like a merry band of loveable rogues, a rag-tag bunch who in the early years were renowned more for their post-game antics and love of the social scene as opposed to their prowess on the field. But those early beginnings forged bonds and spirit. Camaraderie and long-lasting friendships that still exist today and are the foundations the club has built its reputation on.

When Neil ‘Dutchy’ Ver Weij arrived in the UAE in late 1992, his large frame led to Dubai Exiles stalwart Gary Harris inviting him down to training. But when the Dutchman, a talented goalkeeper in his youth, explained to club elders that he had no rugby pedigree, he was told bluntly ‘this is not the club for you’. At that time, Osseman approached Dutchy and pointed to another pitch at Al Awir where Dragons were practicing.

They’d only just formed a proper club earlier that year, while Exiles, the Emirates’ oldest club, were then celebrating their 25th year.

Jebel Ali Dragons celebrates during of awards ceremony the Gulf Men's League Trophy Final of the HSBC Sevens World Series at the Rugby Sevens in Dubai on November 30, 2013. Photo by Joseph J Capellan/Sport360

Success at the Sevens back in 2013.

The name Dragons comes from the pub where the club was created by Fish and Blaster – the George & Dragon, in Bur Dubai. Technically, Jebel Ali Dragons are only seven years old as Jebel Ali Resorts & Hotels came on board in 2010 to offer the club its first home ground at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence.<

“We’d go to the George and Dragon on a Tuesday, play some darts and pool. It was a Dragons pub. You knew you’d always bump into some Dragons boys,” said 55-year-old Ver Weij, who has been with the club almost since the beginning.

A footballer by trade who had lived in Iraq and Saudi Arabia prior to his arrival in the UAE, he was very much an outsider. But Dragons has long been a halfway house for players of all ability.

“I grew up in Dubai but was living in Egypt in the early 1990s and only moved back to Dubai in ‘95 to work,” added Austin, 46. “I had not even heard of the Dragons and had planned to attend Exiles training.

Soon after returning to Dubai I headed to the Alamo Bar on a Friday night when I was approached by a complete stranger who said ‘you look like you play rugby’. ‘I do’,

I replied. ‘Well we’ve got a game tomorrow night against Sharjah and you’re in the starting team’, replied the stranger.

“I tried to talk myself out of it but was told I’d be picked up and taken to the game and had no choice in the matter. The next day I made my debut for the Dragons, was named man of the match and from there started 10 plus years at the Dragons including most as captain and three unbeaten years.”

The likes of Fester, Blaster and Austin may have left. But there is plenty of new blood keeping the club stocked with characters who are passionate about maintaining the Dragons tradition.

Club stalwart: Neil ‘Dutchy’ Ver Weij.

Dutchy, a long-time coach of Dragons’ third team, was asked by Paul and the players to step up to become first team manager for the new season earlier this summer with local boy Jonny MacDonald taking charge of Dragons 2nds. Stuart Quinn is the club’s new chairman.

Paul Hart is another club legend, still a feature for the first team and the UAE despite approaching his 40th birthday.

His First Resort Global Recruitment firm has played its part in attracting players to the club.

These current stalwarts and others are aiming to help Dragons replicate past successes and scale even greater heights, all the while hoping another emergency meeting akin to the one in Austin’s villa 17 years ago isn’t needed.

“With Dragons we never say no. We always welcome people, everybody’s welcome no matter what level you are,” said Ver Weij, reflecting on that first training session quarter of a century ago.

“We make you feel part of the club. Even if you don’t want to play you can be part of the social scene. It’s one big family. There’s been some great work done behind the scenes, by the likes of Tim Wood the ex-chairman and Mike Lewis. Those boys have kept it together.

“Others like treasurer Ben Pryor, Harty, Quinny, Peter Miller does all the sponsorship recruitment. Without them I don’t think we would still be here, don’t underestimate the work they do.”

Celebrating league success in 2004.

Despite being part of the club for 25 years, there was a period in the late 90s and early 2000s where Dutchy stepped away as the playing side of the club became more serious and talented under Jones.

But he returned around six years ago and is now here to stay.

“Rugby is an amazing sport and there’s amazing guys here,” he said. “I want to be here another 10 years hopefully. The club is getting stronger. The steps the club has taken in 25 years is enormous.

“I look back sometimes with my wife and say to her ‘look what we’ve done’. We’ve got the new clubhouse, pitch, trophies are coming back. It’s just not like any other club. We’ve got the real Dragons family feeling coming back.”



Dubai Dragons are formed in the George & Dragon pub in Bur Dubai by John Fish and ‘Blaster’.


Play with Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Ain, Sharjah, Dubai Exiles, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar in the Gulf’s sole rugby league as well as appearing at the Dubai Sevens.


Emergency meeting held to decide the future of the club. The four who turn up lie to the Arabian Gulf RFU, claiming to have 30 players and a sponsorship deal. Promotion is granted and the club move to Division 1.


Enter the Gulf League, win their first match v Abu Dhabi, the eventual champions, and finish a creditable third.


Win Gulf Cup, second in the league.


Unbeaten season, winning Gulf League and Gulf Cup. In Cup final, the Dragons 2nds famously beat the Exiles 1sts.


Retain Gulf League but lose Gulf Cup final. Win Dubai Sevens for the first time.


Another unbeaten season in 15’s winning both Gulf League and Gulf Cup.


Club enter a rebuilding stage with a number of senior players stepping down. Tim Wood becomes chairman.


Second team win the Emirates League for the fourth consecutive season.


Back-to-back Dubai Sevens winners.


Finally have a place to call home as JA Resorts & Hotels agree to back them, officially become Jebel Ali Dragons.


The two most successful seasons in club history achieved as Dragons win back-to-back trebles of league, Gulf Top 6 and Dubai Sevens titles.


A few barren years, although former dual code rugby star Henry Paul is appointed head coach in the summer of 2016. Ex-Arabian Gulf international Jonny MacDonald, a long-time Dragons player, becomes his assistant.


Under Paul, Dragons return to prominence, losing UAE Premiership final to Quins, claiming fourth in West Asia Premiership.


Secure seven figure five-year sponsorship deal with Hesco. Complete ground development, including installing new floodlights, 3G pitch and a clubhouse.

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