One of the country's oldest clubs gets ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary in the Conference, aware that playing in the West Asia Premiership comes with pitfalls
Sharjah Wanderers building solid foundations rather than risk biting off more than they can chew
As one UAE rugby club that is barely two months old prepares to challenge the best from a standing start, another that has 40 years of history supporting it is happy to take baby steps towards the top.
Eighteen months ago, Sharjah Wanderers won the UAE Conference via a dramatic, last-play win over Jebel Ali Dragons’ second string.
Despite going the season undefeated in the second tier of domestic competition, they opted against promotion to the West Asia Premiership.
They ranked highly in the Conference the following season, without repeating their title success, and thoughts of elevation to the top tier were no longer pressing this summer.
In the meantime, around 50kms down the E311, Dubai Sports City Eagles have gone from a kernel of an idea to fully fledged members of the Gulf rugby elite, bypassing both the Conference and the UAE Community leagues in the process.
According to Shane Breen, the Wanderers chairman, the jump from Conference to Premiership rugby is one that can be fraught with problems.
“Winning the league two seasons ago was a big thing for us,” Breen said. “We have tried to push on from there, which isn’t always easy with the transient nature of this region. Trying to establish a legacy or succession plan year on year is something we are looking in to.”
While he believes the Eagles are well placed to make a go of their first season, given their proximity to a large prospective player base in new Dubai, Breen cites other cases for being cautious.
Dubai Wasps, for example, attained Premiership status early in their life cycle, but withdrew from the league this summer because of unmanageable running costs, after seven years in existence.
Even Al Ain Amblers, who have set the standard for many years at Conference level, were forced to abort their latest attempt to compete with the elite after just one game last season.
Breen, by contrast, is happy for Sharjah to keep building solid foundations.
“Whilst they [Eagles] are one case, Wasps would be another case,” he said. “The Eagles have the benefit of location, as well as exclusivity at that location now, too.
“They have sole use of the closest pitches to where the majority of people live and work. That is a key driver.
“For us, we looked at what had happened to Wasps, and tried to learn from that. They were in the Premiership, they lost some players, they went down, and then everything started to disintegrate around them.”
Unlike most clubs, Sharjah do not have pitch costs when they play home matches. However, they also have a small player pool in their city, relative to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, for example.
As such, they made the decision five years ago to pay to train in Dubai. They offset the costs of having to pay to train at The Sevens, Dubai with the fact it is easier for more players to actually get there.
The additional travel costs playing Premiership rugby would bring, including – usually – two away flights per season, as well as the outlay for hosting touring teams, is too great to bear just at present.
“Financially, could we afford to be in the West Asia? At the moment, no,” Breen said.
“Also, we did not know if our squad would still be around, so going up would have been a leap of faith.
“There was a lot of uncertainty, so we wanted to spend one more year in the Conference, and if we continued to do the same, then we would have said, ‘Right, we are too good for this league’.
“Last season showed that sometimes things don’t always work out like that.”
Although Wanderers will celebrate their 40th anniversary this season, much is changing. They will have a new coach, Matt Anderson, after Nic Walters stepped down following the success of recent seasons.
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And the club will move away from their traditional red and black colours when they don a grey playing shirt this season – albeit with single black and red stripes as a nod to the past.
And Breen says the team remain upward looking.
“It is definitely not our focus to remain a social, Conference club,” he said.
"We want to one day compete with the top people, but that is more of a long-term strategy, and not something we can do over night. It is still a vision of ours to get into the Premiership.”