Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Size of Niall Lear's task at Abu Dhabi Harlequins is clear as new UAE Premiership season kicks-off

Director of rugby happy to be 'jumping in at the deep end', while new boys Dubai Tigers and Dubai Knights Eagles are set for their first games in the top-flight

Abu Dhabi Harlequins, in green and white, will begin their UAE Premiership title defence against Jebel Ali Dragons. Pawan Singh / The National
Abu Dhabi Harlequins, in green and white, will begin their UAE Premiership title defence against Jebel Ali Dragons. Pawan Singh / The National

If Niall Lear had any doubts about the size of the task facing him as the director of rugby at Abu Dhabi Harlequins, the opening day of the new season should cover it.

The Scotsman was installed in the role this summer. He has a broad mandate, overseeing the running of the capital club from mini and youth section, all the way up to the first XV’s bid to return to the top of West Asia rugby.

On Friday, he will be refereeing an Under 19s match, before filling the bench for the Harlequins third XV, then plotting the first team’s opening match of their UAE Premiership title defence, away at Jebel Ali Dragons.

“It is living the dream, and there is nothing like jumping in at the deep end,” Lear said, on the eve of the kick off to the domestic rugby season.

Lear might be new to the region – his lone experience of the UAE before his arrival six weeks ago being as a player for Scotland at the Dubai Rugby Sevens in the mid-2000s.

But he is already up to speed on the standards expected of a club who have grown used to success in recent years.

They start the campaign as the defending UAE Premiership champions, but the ultimate target for each of the seven top-flight clubs is to become No 1 in West Asia by the end of it.

That mantle is currently held by Bahrain, who beat a Harlequins side short of a number of established first teamers in a pre-season friendly two weeks ago.

“We want to be there challenging,” Lear said. “We should be there or thereabouts, but the transient nature of the region means I don’t think there are many squads out there with the strength in depth.

“Everyone has a very, very good match day 22 or 23. Outside that, it is tough, and we are exactly the same. If we get a lucky run with injuries, we will do well.

“We have that core of established players who have been here for years and done it, and we have managed to complement that with some really exciting guys coming in.”

Lear is not the only one new to West Asia’s top competition. Dubai Tigers will begin their first season in the top flight on Friday, having accepted promotion following two title wins in successive seasons in the second tier.

They could scarcely have been handed a tougher start, with the champions Bahrain heading to Dubai College, but Aaron Persico, the Tigers coach, is optimistic.

“If there is one week where we’d want to get them, it would probably be this week,” Persico said.

“They don’t know anything about us, but we have heard a lot about them.

"If we have to play the strongest team straight away, then it is a good opportunity for us to work out where the standard is.

“We are going to have to hope they are a little bit off. We have to try to be competitive and play our rugby.

Dubai Tigers, in white, quell an Al Ain Amblers attack on their way to winning the UAE Conference title. Pawan Singh / The National
Dubai Tigers, in white, will begin their first season in the top-flight against champions Bahrain. Pawan Singh / The National

“This year in some ways is going to be easier. Last season we had a reputation to play for, and everybody wanted to knock us off. Now, we are the underdog.

“Everyone will want to prove they are a lot better than us, so in some ways we can just go about our rugby and enjoy ourselves.”

The other new entity in the top division, Dubai Knights Eagles, will start their season against Dubai Hurricanes at The Sevens.

The side was formed this summer in a merger between the thriving junior club Arabian Knights and Dubai Sports City Eagles, who played top-flight rugby for the past two seasons.

They will have their work cut out on the opening day. Hurricanes, who won the Gulf League tournament at the Dubai Rugby Sevens last season, made some impressive recruits in the off-season.

Most notably, Emosi Vecanuau joined from Harlequins, while Haydn Palmer, a former Hurricanes youth product, is back from living and playing in Wales, where he won representative honours in sevens.

Updated: October 3, 2019 06:58 PM

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