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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain cordiality a sign of the times in West Asia Rugby

The two sides will be meeting at Zayed Sports City, seven days after Bahrain claimed a late win over the same opposition in the Western Clubs Champions League

Abu Dhabi Harlequins in action against Kandy in the Western Clubs Champions League. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Abu Dhabi Harlequins in action against Kandy in the Western Clubs Champions League. Chris Whiteoak / The National

If familiarity does breed contempt, then the existing rivalries in West Asia rugby are likely to be become especially fractious this season.

The campaign officially starts on Friday evening, when a newly-revamped cross-border Premiership kicks off.

With Abu Dhabi Saracens dropping down a division, and Doha absent for a second term, it means the remaining six clubs in the top flight will play each three times just in regular-season matches.

For Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain, it might feel like Groundhog Day already. The two sides will be meeting at Zayed Sports City, seven days after Bahrain claimed a late win over the same opposition on home territory in the Western Clubs Champions League.

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For now, however, relations could scarcely be more cordial between the two sides. The Harlequins players stayed with their opponents socialising until the earlier hours of Saturday after the Champions League encounter.

And Mike McFarlane and Louie Tonkin, the opposing coaches, will drive down the E11 to the game in the same car on Friday afternoon, having been on a coach education course together in Dubai on Thursday.

“There are always hard, close games, but off the field the boys all stay over with them,” McFarlane said.

“With the new league design, we are going to end up playing Bahrain four times, before any potential playoffs.

"It is going to be a good coaching challenge this year to offer something every time you play.”

McFarlane has played down expectations on his side returning to the standards they set in winning all the major trophies on offer two years ago, citing problems that have been felt across the board in Gulf rugby this summer.

Harlequins fielded four teams at times last season, but their senior section saw its numbers significantly reduced in the summer.

“Due to the overhaul, we have had to change all our systems and structures, which is a pain because it would be nice to build on a year, rather than having to restart,” McFarlane said.

“With about 15 minutes to go [against Bahrain last Friday], we were in a really strong position to stay in the lead and see out the game, but – hands up – we really poorly mismanaged the game.

“We took a couple of quick taps, instead of taking three points. We should have kicked for territory, and instead tried to run it back and got isolated.

“They are lessons we will learn. As long as we learn from those lessons, and move on and become a better team, not a problem. If we don’t take it on board, that is when it becomes more of an issue.”

Jebel Ali Dragons will begin their title defence, in Mike Phillips’ first competitive game as coach, when they play UAE Premiership champions Dubai Exiles at The Sevens.

Dubai Sports City Eagles host Dubai Hurricanes in the other match of the opening day.