x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Hurricanes ready to blow their rivals away

These are troubling times for the chasing pack in Arabian Gulf rugby. They should be afraid: the Dubai Hurricanes have got an office equipped with their own branded Post-it notes now.

Dubai Hurricanes, sponsored by Fly Emirates, will once again be the team to beat in the Gulf Top Six this season.
Dubai Hurricanes, sponsored by Fly Emirates, will once again be the team to beat in the Gulf Top Six this season.

These are troubling times for the chasing pack in Arabian Gulf rugby. They should be afraid: the Dubai Hurricanes have got an office equipped with their own branded Post-it notes now.

The side who won all the major trophies on offer last season, and thus re-established their status as the leading club in the region, have always prided themselves on their laissez-faire attitude to life.

Usually their new team kit does not arrive until midway through the season. They make a point of flying to away matches at peculiar times, on account of the fact it saves a few dirhams to do so. Yet they have still managed to carry off most of the silverware more often than not.

However, all that has changed this season. Their new shirts were freshly delivered well in advance of last Friday's club day, the centrepiece of which was a memorial match for Jamie Black and Mark Filby, two former Hurricanes players.

They have a raft of sponsors, one of which is Emirates Airline, meaning their shirts bear the same logo as the likes of Arsenal, the English Premier League football team, and the England sevens rugby team.

As part of their arrangement with Emirates, who own The Sevens, they have an office at the ground and a full-time administrator, who no doubt only ever uses the Hurricanes' own Post-its.

All this organisation malarkey is a threat to the true spirit of the club. "It is starting to worry me," Chris Gregory, the captain who has raised more cups than any other in Gulf rugby in recent years, joked.

Happily, some old habits die hard. While the Hurricanes look in good health off the field, their preparations for the new campaign on it have been hindered by a number of personnel problems.

Some players, including Gregory's brother, Ian, have left and joined new clubs. James Ham, their goalkicking centre, is a victim of a long-term injury.

They will face the Dubai Exiles in the opening match of the Gulf Top Six season tomorrow without five of their UAE representatives.

Dan Boatwright and Simon Osborne are unavailable, while Gregory, Brad Barker and Steve Smith are travelling to Borneo with the UAE sevens team.

"We have lost a lot of the back line, which is our main weakness now, but our forwards are very strong, and we are hoping for a great year," Gregory said. "A lot of clubs have worked a lot on development in the summer, Abu Dhabi Harlequins and [Jebel Ali] Dragons in particular.

"But we have done enough in pre-season this year to give it a good go."

The Hurricanes stole a march on their rivals when they secured a sponsorship deal with the landlords at UAE rugby's headquarters, meaning their pitch hire fees were underwritten.

However, from the start of this season, all the clubs who are based at The Sevens will benefit from a similar arrangement, agreed between the Rugby Association and the airline.

"As clubs grow, their rate of growth often outstrips their financial resource," Ian Bremner, the Rugby Association chief executive, said. "They need more training time, meaning they need more pitch time, so they were finding it financially very difficult to hire pitches."

Some of the financial burden has been eased, but, although the expenses might not be as crippling as they once were, playing rugby is still not cheap.

Clubs are still obliged to pay around Dh1,650 to host home matches at The Sevens, which covers the cost of water, ice, other refreshments, and around 25 post-match meals.

Those costs, as well as the distance involved to play and train at The Sevens, have encouraged a number of teams to explore other options in recent times.

Last year, the Dragons - formerly the Dubai Dragons, now Jebel Ali - moved to their own new ground at the Jebel Ali Shooting Club.

This summer, Toa Dubai forged a new association with Arabian Knights, the thriving youth rugby club. As a result of their link up, they have been training at the rugby field neighbouring the International Cricket Council offices at Dubai Sports City.

They hope to move to play their home matches there by the second half of the season, once some final modifications to the playing area have been carried out.

Both the Dragons and Toa have enjoyed a membership spike as a result of their home grounds being nearer to the main residential areas in Dubai.

The Rugby Association are aware that the clubs who have moved away from The Sevens will receive no benefit from their new special arrangement with the ground's owners.

As such, they have factored three sevens tournaments - one each at Jebel Ali, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi Harlequins - into the campaign in the lead-up to December's Dubai Rugby Sevens.

"That will give the clubs who don't get the advantage of The Sevens facility the opportunity to host a tournament and to raise some funds, to raise their profile and to thank their sponsors," Bremner said.

It is a neat gesture. Club rugby here would not survive without the largesse of sponsors who are usually essentially rugby philanthropists. Abu Dhabi Harlequins, for example, have to pay Dh300,000 per year for the use of the excellent facilities at Zayed Sports City.

Away travel is just as dear. Andy Cole, the Quins chairman, estimates that this weekend's away trip to Doha will cost the club around Dh35,000.

Yet the club still have enough left over to provide a free kit for each member, costing around Dh180 for children and Dh260 for adults.

As well as the input from the sponsors, the subscriptions fees from in excess of 400 mini and youth team players goes a long way.

Cole says that means the club have a commitment to providing quality coaching for their junior section, which will be overseen by the club's new director of rugby, Chris Davies.

"We have to deliver in terms of minis and youth so they get value for money - it is very important," Cole said.

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