Etihad pilot has been appointed the UAE rugby club's new coach and has set about reviving their fortunes
Peter Henderson tasked with making Abu Dhabi Saracens fly again after year of turmoil
After a long-haul overnight flight with his job as an Etihad pilot, Peter Henderson has two pressing tasks at hand.
Firstly, beating jet lag and making it through to the evening’s rugby training in a fit state to make a worthy contribution. And, second, reviving Abu Dhabi Saracens.
He starts the process of addressing the first by ordering a double espresso. The second? That solution for that might take slightly longer.
Happily for the younger of Abu Dhabi’s two rugby clubs, he is one of a number of people who have made a commitment to seeing the job through of trying to revitalise a team on its knees.
Having filled the position in a caretaker role for all of the harrowing last season, Henderson was officially instilled as Saracens coach this summer.
Many would have shirked the task. Given the troubles that have afflicted Saracens, some feared the club that were the best in West Asia as recently as 2014 might slip from view altogether.
Most things that could go wrong last season, did. First, a raft of senior players left. Then they were evicted from Al Ghazal, which had been their home ground for the seven years of the club’s existence so far, because of issues beyond their control.
It reached the point where they had to rely on the goodwill of their city rivals, Harlequins, for the loan of their scrum-machine. With a keen sense of how valuable their rivalry is to rugby in the capital, Quins obliged, handing over the code to the machine without question.
On the field, results were poor. Saracens even had to forfeit two fixtures – against the same opposition, Dubai Exiles.
Instead of capitulating, though, the club’s leadership committee have redoubled their efforts. The ground issue is now resolved, leading them to plan with greater confidence. They hope to revive their junior section.
They have asked for their second team to be elevated from the UAE Community League to the second tier Conference. They started pre-season training earlier than ever – and earlier than any other club.
Henderson is looking ahead with optimism. He wants the club to be competitive again.
“The way it was last year, if we were in the business of building coffins, people would have stopped dying – that is how unlucky we were,” Henderson said. “It was one hit after another.
“It was tough, but the good thing is, we didn’t give up. One thing that goes against my entire ethos for rugby is forfeiting games, but we were pushed to the absolute limit.
“We have the attitude that we are rebuilding from year zero. We put the brush through everything, introduced a brand new culture, the way we believe rugby clubs should be.”
The fall has been greater because of the heights the club had already scaled in its short lifespan. Their rise was remarkable from formation in 2011, to champions of West Asia three seasons later.
One significant factor in that success was substantial sponsorship. Saracens are not alone amongst clubs in the region to have been increasingly feeling the pinch because of a straitened financial climate.
“When the money ran out, a lot of the players scattered,” said Henderson, a former fullback who joined the club as a player more or less as soon as he arrived in the city four and a half years ago.
“Some of the really good players stayed, and showed their strength and commitment to the game, which was great to see.
“It was a great win, but what was the legacy of the win? What happened the season after that? We won 50 per cent of the games. The next season we lost 100 per cent of the games.
“You have to look at what the legacy is. It is not what you are doing, it is what you leave behind.”
Henderson is glad to have players of the talent of Jonathan Taylor, the club captain who is eyeing a UAE national team call up next season, and Rikus Swart, the multi-talented UAE back, still to call on.
Plus, he is confident the early start to pre-season – before schools had even broken up for the summer – will have make a difference once the campaign is under way.
“It is 100 per cent about mental capacity, and being mentally stronger,” Henderson said.
“It was my decision to start early, to say to the boys, ‘No-one else is doing this today. We are.’ No-one else did what we did. If they put in that effort, mentally they will have that edge.
“There will be guys who are bigger, stronger, faster, of course. But when there are those final two minutes to go to the whistle, I trust that my boys will be able to think, ‘I’ve got this, I can push through this. I went through hell then, and I know I am stronger’.”