x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Jebel Ali Dragons are out to breathe fire this season

Coaches are happy with recruitment drive and extra focus on fitness levels after self-evaluation.

The Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, were found wanting in several areas last season, according to Paul Hart, the new first-team captain of the XV side.
The Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, were found wanting in several areas last season, according to Paul Hart, the new first-team captain of the XV side.

DUBAI // If results are the best gauge of the health of a rugby club, few people would have thought Jebel Ali Dragons were broken last season.

Having won a third title in four years at the Dubai Rugby Sevens and been in the running for all the top prizes in the XVs game, only to lose out by the odd point here and there, the club did not seem to need fixing, let alone stage a complete overhaul.

However, the powers-that-be at the Dragons have had enough of seasons of what they regard as underachievement.

Dominating the abridged format of the game but remaining the perennial runners-up in the 15-a-side version does not cut it anymore.

"We evaluated at the end of last season and we all agreed we hadn't fulfilled our potential," said Paul Hart, 34, the former Worcester Warriors forward who has been installed as the new first XV captain of the Dragons.

"We felt that, individually, we were probably the strongest team in the whole region.

"But, collectively, we weren't fit enough, we weren't well-drilled enough and we didn't have continuity, putting the same combinations on the field week in and week out.

"We got pipped in a game by Abu Dhabi Harlequins and again by Dubai Hurricanes, simply because they put the same 15 blokes on the field each week."

As part of the summer recruitment push, the club encouraged their leading players to exhaust their contacts book in the search for new players.

As a result, more than 30 recruits were signed up during pre-season, of which Hart estimates at least 15 are first-team quality.

As much as 90 per cent of the forward pack is new. They are also receiving expert tutelage from a highly credentialed scrum coach, Michael Reid, an-ex prop for the Auckland Blues Super rugby franchise.

Reid, who will be working alongside Shane Thornton, a fellow New Zealander who is the head coach, has been impressed by what he has seen so far since arriving in the summer.

"At some training sessions there have been enough for three or four forward packs," said Reid, who played in the front row for North Harbour in New Zealand's domestic competition before his injury-enforced retirement.

"Sometimes I haven't known what to do with them all, but better that than having to look around trying to find people.

"All the signs are very positive. I know the Dragons have a history of playing an attractive game of rugby. The attitude is great and that is the key."

The Dragons will get an immediate chance to test themselves against the best on Friday, when they face last season's top club, Abu Dhabi Harlequins.

There have been variety of lauded new arrivals at the capital club this summer, too, a fact not wasted on the Dragons.

Quins were absent from an afternoon of warm-up friendly matches at the Dragons home crowd at the weekend, but at least one recognisable Abu Dhabi spotter was present at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence.

The club have lost two hugely influential players from last season.

Dan Heal, the UAE hooker and Dragons club captain, has relocated back to the UK, while Trent Eastgate, the ex-Arabian Gulf centre and first XV skipper at Dragons, has also left.

"Losing your club captain and your first-team captain at the same time was a big loss to the club, especially people as influential as Trent and Dan," Hart said.

"We see this year as a transitional year, but I hope I can continue the good work that Trent did because he was a very good player, very popular and very good for the club."

pradley@thenational.ae

Earlier in the series yesterday: Jan Venter to take Exiles back to basics

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