For the second season in a row, hope over the new campaign for Abu Dhabi Harlequins has been offset by the anguish of serious injury suffered by one of their leading lights.
To exacerbate the intense despair, for the second consecutive season it is the same player who is bearing the agony.
Mike McFarlane spent 15 months battling against an initial prognosis that he would never play rugby again after suffering a double-break to his shin bone.
When he made his long-awaited return to the playing field in a warm-up tournament at Al Ain two weeks ago, teammates and rivals alike shared in his delight at conquering the odds.
The player himself was less concerned with celebrating his own return to fitness as he was in encouraging Matt Hutchings, another long-term injury victim, on his own road back to health.
Yet his second outing meant revisiting the despair all over again.
Harlequins travelled to Bahrain last weekend for their final pre-season friendly before Friday’s season opener against Jebel Ali Dragons.
In a run-of-the-mill tackle, McFarlane broke the same leg again, and the darkness returned.
“I knew straight away what had happened and exactly what it was,” the Harlequins No 8 said. “Last time it was a shock. This time I knew straight away, and immediately what went through my mind was all the things I am not going to be able to do over the next couple of months.”
October 18 looms largest – the date when he is due to get married.
McFarlane is unsure whether he will be capable of walking down the aisle, and will get a clearer idea only at his next doctor’s appointment, on October 5.
“It was one of the first things that came into my mind – this must be the quickest way to get into the dog house,” he said. “I’d like to see anyone beat that. If you don’t laugh you will cry. I am not even thinking about rugby at the moment – I just need to be able to walk in three weeks’ time. I need to find this miracle.”
He started a new job at the British School Al Khubairat at the start of this term and is dejected to be missing time off work at a time when he should have been impressing new employers.
After suffering the break, he was taken to the Royal Military Hospital in Manama for surgery immediately, when a steel bolt was again inserted into his broken shin.
Dosed up on painkillers, he eventually made a flight back to Abu Dhabi with his teammate, new work colleague and chaperone, Ed Lewsey, on Sunday night.
“In the days since I’ve been out of hospital I’ve been in disbelief that I am back exactly where I was 16 months ago,” he said.
“The Bahrain boys, who were absolutely outstanding in the way they looked after me, have sent me video of the incident and said, ‘Feel free to watch it when you want – if you want.’
“I haven’t, and don’t think I’m quite ready to.”
McFarlane reckons he has left behind the best side Abu Dhabi Harlequins have yet assembled and is heart-broken to be on the outside for a second time.
Jeremy Manning, the player-coach who will be overseeing his first season in charge at Zayed Sports City, missed the trip to Bahrain.
The former professional player was in Nairobi making his latest guest appearance on the international sevens circuit.
Manning said he initially thought it must have been an ill-conceived joke when he heard the news of McFarlane’s injury.
“I was devastated,” Manning said. “I felt sick and hoped it might have been a practical joke, but it turned out to be true.
“I’m gutted for Mike after everything he went through last season, then he played his first 80-minute game and he re-breaks his leg. It is very sad.
“Everyone is feeling for Mike. He is a massive club man, he is passionate about rugby but everyone at the club will stand behind him and give him all the support he needs.”
When McFarlane made his comeback at Al Ain two weeks ago, he said nothing could replace the buzz of playing rugby.
Now he is facing up to the prospect of having to look for something else to fill the void for good. It is a marker of his self-belief that he already is contemplating triathlons and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as ways to replace his first sporting love.
“It is one of those things where I can either let it get me down or push on – and it is pointless letting it get me down,” he said. “Obviously, there will be some rubbish days, but I just have to get back on the bike.
“Last time it happened all I thought about was what I needed to do to get back to playing rugby.
“This time I need to be realistic. In another 18 months or two years I will be 29. Is it worth putting my body through it again? I need to look for other physical challenges and there are plenty more out there to do.”
Coach Jeremy Manning
Captain Billy Graham
Key player Simon Osborne. Towering lock was one of the first names on the UAE teamsheet before missing last season. Back at Quins from Dubai Hurricanes.
In a nutshell Some think this is the best Quins side ever, and they will be looking to lay down an immediate marker against last season’s conquerors on Friday.
Saracens v Hurricanes, Zayed Sports City, 7pm
Dragons v Harlequins, Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence, 7pm
Wasps v Exiles, The Sevens, 7pm