x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Abu Dhabi Saracens ready for their big kick-off

Officials at Abu Dhabi Saracens, the capital's second rugby club, are relishing their debut season.

Players from Abu Dhabi Saracens have been training at the Al Ghazal Golf Club ahead of the start of the UAE Conference season, which will be their first.
Players from Abu Dhabi Saracens have been training at the Al Ghazal Golf Club ahead of the start of the UAE Conference season, which will be their first.

Before a rising orange moon in the dregs of August and the air of stillness and the reign of humidity, here came a crackling energy.

It materialised out of thick air out by the airport, bustled at a pitch at the Al Ghazal Golf Club and marked the nascent stages of the capital's second UAE Conference rugby team that will function within the newborn, multi-sport Abu Dhabi Saracens club.

Their Monday evening training session boasted a row of sledgehammers, a few giant tyres and a side portion of relief.

"Three months ago I was probably a little bit nervous about whether we would even have depth in our senior team," said Brett Bowie, the club chairman. "But now I'm quite relaxed about it."

In starting the Saracens from scratch, he and Dave Jackson, his co-founder, faced "a decision with a bit of apprehension", Jackson said, as onlookers noted the presence of the entrenched Harlequins and said, in Jackson's words, "Is Abu Dhabi big enough for two clubs?"

Here beneath the lights even with so much of the country gone abroad for summers and swelter avoidance, with 20 men and six women and a few million sweat glands at full throttle, Bowie and Jackson sounded like successful frontiersmen who knew the joy of ploughing through doubt, as when Bowie said: "If we'd fallen flat, which we're not going to do now, but if we'd fallen flat ..."

A tier beyond fear by now, they aim for September 23 and their first Abu Dhabi derby with the Harlequins second team even as they ply social media and organic communication and luck that falls out of the sky to expand the fresh club they also brand the oldest in the country. This dates back to a Saracens incarnation that left the oil rigs out on Das Island to play in the Dubai Rugby Sevens in 1970 but had gone inactive since.

"We're the new boys," Bowie said. "We're the dude. We're up. We're fresh. We're the underdogs. We don't yet have market share, but we're throwing things out there. We're having fun."

In novel training with sledgehammers et al and in rugby drills with a lucky-to-have-him coach and in a few minutes of scrummaging, the backgrounds mingled, what with 40 to 45 players having signed up since the outset in June: New Zealand, South African, English, Australian.

Two physical education teachers who played for the Tunisian national team have joined. An Emirati stalwart is due, as is a Namibian.

Serious athletes with serious physiques toiled on Monday night, and other than a small trickle of former Harlequins, Bowie said, it's mostly "pretty much fresh meat, fresh boys, just off the plane."

"I want to have Sri Lankans playing for us," he said later. "I want to have Tunisians, Arabs. Martians, if they share they ideology."

So rich is the enthusiasm that the South African Jackson even has genial help during training sessions from that traditionally circumspect species, the father-in-law.

"Fetch and carry," said Rodney Kelsey, Jackson's 65-year-old father-in-law and childhood Elvis Presley fan. "That's me. The worker bee."

A father-son combination from South Africa who moved seven months ago from Saudi Arabia, including the 17-year-old Tommy Kriel on the day he got his first-ever car, trained on Monday.

"I'm the youngest guy and the smallest guy on the field," said the shirtless Kriel, an accomplished player in school at home. "But I'm not scared of anything ... It's a little bit intimidating for me because I feel like some of the people look down on me just because of my age, but when I actually get the ball, I show them all."

A pitch to Emirati high school pupils went beautifully, Bowie said. The club hopes to form two entirely Emirati sides once at they are fully established. Harlequins have spoken supportively. Machines coming next week will assist with contact drills.

Some teachers should join after Eid. "If anything, as owner of the club and president of the club, I want to see rugby growing in Abu Dhabi," Jackson said.

"Our major focus is to develop rugby within the Emirati schools."

As they develop rugby within the Saracens early on, two boons have thrilled them, involving a Kiwi instructor and some sledgehammers.

"I think they saw my CV floating around," said Paul Lowe, a science-curriculum coordinator for ADEC who had worked out west in the UAE before moving to Abu Dhabi.

They did just that and, said Bowie, "out of the blue sky he fell".

Poring through its gleaming four pages with its extensive New Zealand university background, they excitedly brought him on to train, and he excitedly accepted.

With his theory that the "worst that can happen is it turns to custard and we all go home", Lowe joined, saying: "The drive from Dave and Brett is unbelievable. The passion. That's what actually turned me to come and join these guys. They can see the possibilities, you know?"

As for the sledgehammers and tyres, they came in through the tireless mind of Aaron Depledge, the leader of the Bahrain-based Tribal Fitness, expanding nowadays toward the UAE and Kuwait.

With his saying of, "Gym fit is no longer fit," Depledge espouses collaborative workout schemes that entail punishing the tyres with sledgehammers, flipping tyres and performing unusual routines such as the dreaded "crocodile walk" or the art of crawling like bears.

"It's like a little boot camp," said Erene Spies, a nine-year UAE resident from Cape Town who joined among the six women on Monday.

Said Depledge: "I take it in the paper you're going to say, 'Madman Kills People At Al Ghazal'."

Maybe this: Energetic Madman Makes People Wish Themselves Dead At Al Ghazal. In pitching to prospective members on the phone, Bowie, who played at university among seven future All Blacks, goes heavy on the desired club tone, which he describes as "down to earth and elitist-free".

"Dave and I are very big on the camaraderie," he said. "Dave is Dave. I'm Brett.

"I play on the senior team. And bring the wife along, bring the kids along," even bring the wife to dump the kids and do some yoga.

In their hopes to make the club big and keep its government small, the two leaders "get on like a house on fire," Bowie said.

"We can call each other, give each other [grief], keep each other honest. We think the same, share the same kind of humour ... He's a busy boy, but he's got a heart of gold."

Newcomers have warmed to the start-up aspect and to the statement of tone, Bowie said, but the amiable air does not preclude a serious edge that greets any mention of September 23.

"They're saying, 'We wish you well'," Jackson said, "but they want to make sure that we know they are here, and we want to make sure that they know we're around."

Even as Bowie shows a visitor the driving range that will become what he calls the "epicentre of Saracens" - a space much larger than the current pitch of Monday, and even as he refers to Harlequins as the "Etisalat" of Abu Dhabi rugby in terms of establishment, he seeks no refuge in Saracens' newness approaching that derby.

"I can tell you now mate, there are going to be a lot of people watching, waiting to see us get completely smashed," he said, later adding, "game on," a statement right out of the dregs of August.

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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