UAE rugby on the right path, but fulfilling fixtures needs to be addressed by all teams
Apollo Perelini, the UAE coach, said last week that the domestic club game is currently at the highest standard he has ever seen it.
That is quite an endorsement from somebody of his standing. Perelini, a former Test player for Samoa, has followed the game closely since he arrived in Dubai in 2008, as an occasional player and, more recently, a coach at youth, development and national team level.
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Nobody that saw any of the classic match ups between Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins, for instance, at the top of the playing tree would argue with his view.
The 2015/16 season did have some flaws, though. At top-flight level, three of the six teams — each of whom also fielded second and third XVs — forfeited matches at first-team level during the season.
A tier down, Sharjah Wanderers, the eventual champions, were top of the UAE Conference Top Six just after the turn of the year, having not played a game. Of the five matches they were scheduled to play in that section of the competition, three were walkovers as the opposition could not raise a side.
Outside of the country, meanwhile, Doha, Muscat and Bahrain must have been sick of the sight of each other by the end of another campaign dotted with repetitive excursions to the same places.
We asked five clubs of varying aspirations what is going right, what needs to be rethought, and what they are doing to get ahead.
How they did
First XV: UAE Premiership and West Asia champions
Second XV: Fifth in UAE Conference
Mike Wolff, the Exiles chairman, said: “In terms of the competition structure, many clubs would welcome playing a season-long West Asia competition, and have a meaningful Gulf League.
“That would allow us to plan the season effectively and husband our resources more effectively. As a club, we would be open to playing this either as a play-off system or a league system.
“I think what is best for rugby at the moment is the West Asia competition. I do think that is more interesting and exciting, the idea that Bahrain or Doha are coming to town, or you are travelling into the lion’s den.
“We have a relatively small men’s squad, of around 50 players, and that means managing our resources very carefully.
“We forfeited a seconds game near the end of the season. That was because we were suffering injuries, and the focus was obviously on the first team going for the double.
“I don’t think you should be putting out a third team unless you are sure you have a pretty strong second team, especially in terms of numbers.”
Aiming for the top
Abu Dhabi Harlequins
How they did
First XV: Dubai Rugby Sevens champions; UAE Premiership and West Asia runners-up
Second XV: Third in UAE Conference
Third XV: Third in UAE Community League
The capital’s oldest club might have leapfrogged back above the shock 2015 West Asia champions, their city rivals Saracens, in the standings this season.
Attaining the status of best side in the region remains elusive, though. Harlequins were twice undone by Jebel Ali Dragons in grand finals under the old system.
This time around, they were forced into second place by the resurgent Exiles in a first-past-the-post league format.
Andy Cole, the Harlequins chairman, said he is proud of the way his club works, and will not be looking for any drastic fixes.
“Two of the senior players who missed the Exiles match [in the penultimate week of the UAE Premiership season] for the wedding used to be professional players in the UK,” Cole said.
“We have made a unanimous decision as a club that we will not pay players. We might assist with jobs and even accommodation, as we know that is one of the biggest issues.
“We won’t go down the path of paying players as we know some clubs are struggling with financial issues. Seven players in our first team for some matches have come through our junior ranks.
“To have that at first-team level is exactly what you want. If you can do that here, it is brilliant.”
Beyond the UAE
How they did
First XV: West Asia Champions League winners; Gulf Premiership champions. Third in West Asia Championship
Aaron Palmer, the Doha head coach, said: “We rely on the UAE for meaningful rugby. We are very appreciative of that. Now we have the Qatar Rugby Federation slowly establishing itself, which we hope can work alongside the UAE Rugby Federation as well.
“From a Doha RFC point of view, having played and coached in the competition, I would like to see a West Asia Top 8, playing two full rounds home and away, with a semi-final and final at the end.
“This could be split into a top-four and bottom-four at the end. Fifteen or sixteen matches across the course of a season should be more than enough because no one is a professional rugby player over here.
“We are all out here for our careers, not for professional rugby, and a lot of the players are late-20s to mid-30s and have families or other commitments.
“That is the reality. A lot of players with families long for a weekend off, because tha’s the balance of living in the Middle East, which we sometimes lose sight of.
“We don’t enjoy playing Bahrain and Muscat four times a year. It gets boring. Then we get one shot at Exiles, or one shot at Saracens, and if you don’t win that is your chance gone.”
On the rise
How they did
First XV: UAE Conference champions
Shane Breen, the Wanderers chairman, said: “This year we had three of the biggest clubs, who all have three teams, forfeit against us. Two of those clubs then went on to play their first and third teams on the same day and cancel their seconds game.
“Some of this was apparently down to injuries to front row but also due to safety concerns over third-team players playing Sharjah’s first team. Admittedly we are a first team, but that’s only because we’re our only team!
“I appreciate safety should be a primary concern, however these teams play in a league with the likes of Beaver Nomads, who could easily compete well in the Conference, and there should be more of an emphasis on making sure Conference fixtures are fulfilled.
“I think the only way to achieve this is a fine or points deduction system. However, where safety is highlighted as the reason, it is hard to fine someone.
“The UAERF should take a stance on what constitutes a justifiable reason for forfeiting and teams penalised if they don’t provided a justifiable reason or are found to be repeat offenders. Clubs shouldn’t be allowed to play their third teams and not their seconds though.”
How they did
First XV: Seventh in UAE Conference
Second XV: Sixth in UAE Community League
Third XV: Seventh in UAE Community League
Despite having three teams in the two divisions below the top tier, the Sharks did not miss a fixture during the season.
Mike Quinn, Sharks chairman, said: “It is disappointing when any club forfeits a game in which their first XV are playing. It demonstrates a certain disrespect for our great game.
“I believe if you have enough players, you always fulfil the fixture scheduled for your team that is playing at the highest level possible that particular day.
“There needs to be a formula that allows all teams in the UAE Premiership to play league games every week and have something to fight for, right until the final couple of games of the league.
“However it must encompass the West Asia competition and maybe use a structure similar to the UAE Conference, where all teams play each other once and then the league splits, maybe into two or even three leagues. Every game then becomes important.
“The Sharks are still a very young club. The 2016/2017 season is actually the 10-year anniversary of when the club first played a competitive fixture as the Arabian Potbellies.
“The fact we are still relatively young may make it easier for us to retain some of our original goals and aspirations of playing enjoyable social rugby.”
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Updated: April 20, 2016 04:00 AM