Arabian Gulf rugby in 2017/18: Club-by-club report card on the season that was
As the UAE finals day this month brings down the curtains on an eventful season, Paul Radley takes a look at how the teams have performed
The vast majority of rugby players in the region have made their final tackle and kicked their last ball of the 2017/18 season. With just UAE finals day on April 13, still to play, we assess how the region’s top sides fared over the past six months.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins
Verdict: Commendable defence of all their titles, given the absence list
The capital’s most established club could yet end the campaign with more trophies than anyone else. They won the curtain-raising Champions League with a win over Bahrain and a draw in Kandy.
They beat Dubai Exiles to claim the pilot edition of the UAE Premiership Cup. Those two sides will be reacquainted in the UAE Premiership final in two weekends’ time, too.
It might be some way short of the “famous five” trophy haul their all-conquering side managed last term. But then, so few of that team have featured this season, given the unwelcome mix of long-term injuries, as well as players departing the region.
It is remarkable they have managed to remain competitive at all, let alone kept adding trophies.
Abu Dhabi Saracens
Verdict: Attendance must improve
Most things that could go wrong, did go wrong for Saracens this season. No other club had to deal with having their home ground taken away from them.
The capital’s youngest club started the season homeless. Although they eventually got Al Ghazal back, the lost months destabilised the club alarmingly.
A number of leading players left before the season even started, and then their coach went, too. They forfeited home and away Premiership matches against Exiles, on their way to a last-place finish in the West Asia Premiership.
And yet they are committed to battling on. “My aim is to get this club back to being one of the elite clubs in the UAE, and I think we can do that,” Jacob Basson, the chairman, said in January.
Verdict: Popular return to past glories in the cup may be the start of something big
It shows the high regard in which Bahrain are held in Gulf rugby that their West Asia Cup final win on Friday was universally well received – even by their opponents.
“Worthy winners” and “good rugby people” was how Mike Wolff, chairman of Dubai Exiles, described them.
Bahrain may be a huge club, with home support that is the envy of everyone else in the region. But winning titles in never easy.
While the rest of the league had to fly once – or twice, in Exiles’ case – Bahrain had eight overseas tours in their Premiership and then cup campaign.
“For us, the main aim was to win the league,” Bahrain captain Lindsey Gibson said. “That slipped away from us, but to win the cup was massive for us.
“It sounds silly, but the travelling doesn’t actually bother us too much because we are so used to it.”
Verdict: Not quite at their 2016 best, but still some notable victories to celebrate
It was a marker of how closely fought the West Asia Premiership was that Exiles finished fourth out of seven in that competition – yet somehow still topped the UAE Premiership on the count-back of matches between sides from the Emirates.
Their campaign has already been a qualified success, having won back the Dubai Rugby Sevens title for the first time in a decade in December, as well as finishing runners up in the UAE Premiership Cup and West Asia Cup.
If they could overcome their regular combatants from Harlequins on finals day on April 13, that would be the gloss on a fine season.
Verdict: West Asia Trophy win did little to mask their frustrations
As one of the region’s largest clubs, another season outside of the running for top honours grated.
Coach Mike Wernham is already planning the route to the top next season, but acknowledges it will not be easy.
“I read things in the press, people [from other clubs] coming out saying, ‘We’re not paying our players,’ and it makes me laugh,” Wernham said, after Hurricanes won the West Asia Trophy on Friday.
“We are a non-paying club. I am super competitive. My coaching team are super competitive, but we have to be realistic about what we can and can’t do. I’m not going to ask people to miss work to come and play rugby.
“This isn’t their priority. As a Hurricanes family, it is always: family first, job second, rugby third. Maybe we will be in the same place next year, fingers crossed it won’t, but we always have room for new players.”
Dubai Sports City Eagles
Verdict: Other than a few substantial blowouts, the new boys have fitted in relatively well
Eagles will have set off on their goodwill tour of Sri Lanka this week content that their first season as a competitive entity was passable, at the very least.
Their stated aim was one win. They got that early, and by the end of the season, they were in contention in the West Asia Trophy final, before fading in the last 20 minutes of the final against Hurricanes.
“We started pre-season, then went for a month with just 12 players,” said Josh Ives, the Eagles development manager.
“They pretty much all started the [Trophy final]. If we can do a pre-season with the 40 players we have now, increase the competition in the front-row, and get some more big ball-carriers for the back row, I think we will be there.”
Jebel Ali Dragons
Verdict: Mission accomplished as they reclaimed the big prize
Dragons started the campaign with the major target of reclaiming their status as the region’s leading side in the short-format.
A shock loss in the Dubai Rugby Sevens final to Exiles scotched that ambition – but they were able to offset that by winning the region’s leading competition, the West Asia Premiership, instead.
“You know when you see the fixtures schedule at the start of the season what is expected, what cups are in play, and what the leagues are,” Dragons captain Ross Samson said.
“We got to the final of the Sevens, and we were disappointed not to win. The next goal was to win the league, and we have done that.”
Updated: April 2, 2018 03:46 PM