x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 December 2017

West Asia Premiership rugby: New boys Dubai Sports City Eagles 'ready to give it a good shot' as they open against Exiles

“Fifty years against five weeks,” said Sean Carey, the founder of Dubai Sports City Eagles, whose first assignment in competitive rugby

Sean Carey, centre, founder of Dubai Sports City Eagles, the UAE's newest rugby club, take on Dubai Exiles, its oldest, on the opening day of the West Asia Premiership. Antonie Robertson / The National
Sean Carey, centre, founder of Dubai Sports City Eagles, the UAE's newest rugby club, take on Dubai Exiles, its oldest, on the opening day of the West Asia Premiership. Antonie Robertson / The National

When the new West Asia Premiership season kicks off, a club that did not exist two months ago will be pitted against one that is older than the UAE itself.

“Fifty years against five weeks,” said Sean Carey, the founder of Dubai Sports City Eagles, whose first assignment in competitive rugby is against Dubai Exiles.

“We are ready to give it a good shot. It feels like we have been building up to this for a while, but we are finally here now.

“The hard part has been done, we just have to go out, play rugby and enjoy it.

“We want it to be a big occasion, hopefully we can get a good crowd down and we can make a nice day of it.”

The campaign will be starting on the same pitch at Sports City where the last one finished in such triumphant fashion.

Grand finals day, which was televised live, with a big-screen relaying the footage pitch-side, was one of the great occasions in the history of the domestic game.

Even hard-bitten players were moved to reflect that the powers-that-be had actually got that one right.

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The UAE Rugby Federation might hope the same doubters will reserve judgment on their decision to go against normal practice and enter the Eagles straight into top-flight rugby this time around.

Critics were many when the announcement was made this summer.

“The decision merits a close examination,” Mike Wolff, the Exiles chairman, said.

“I really do question the logic and thought that has gone into that decision.

“The quality of the game in the Premiership is really quite impressive on its day.

“Without any evidence that the Eagles deserve that opportunity, they have been admitted without any discussion between the UAERF and the other Premiership clubs, which I find absolutely bizarre. It would not happen in any other rugby union or federation.”

The federation, for their part, reasoned that the more clubs willing to compete at the top level, who were happy to try to prove they have what it takes, the better.

Many have tried and failed. There have been a variety of Icarus flights in Gulf rugby this decade.

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Dubai Wasps accepted the challenge, put up a fight, suffered for it, and are now defunct.

Abu Dhabi Saracens arrived, rose to the very top almost immediately, but are now homeless, coachless, and facing a tough new reality.

And last season, there was the farce of Al Ain Amblers opting out of the Premiership a week into it, citing a lack of front-row cover for their change of situation.

Add in the fact Doha have been forced to look elsewhere – namely Sri Lanka – for rugby, because of the Qatar boycott, and it describes a fluid landscape.

“When Al Ain Amblers were struggling to compete, and when Saracens weren’t as good last season as they had been in the previous two years, all of a sudden Eagles came into the picture,” Qais Al Dhalai, the secretary general of the UAERF, said.

“We felt it was the right time to give them some priority, for many reasons.

“One is that they have the financial back up from Dubai Sports City management.

“Secondly, they have their own home. You cannot find anyone amongst the top six teams who has those things.”

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After evaluating the Eagles’ strategic plan, the federation decided to enter the club straight into the top tier of competition.

“We decided the right avenue for them would be the Premiership,” Al Dhalai said.

“If they play at the Conference or Community level, it could be a big score against the other teams. What is the good in that?

“If you want to go through the normal protocol - that is Community, Conference, Premiership - it will do no good to them or to us.”

All of which meant the start-up club suddenly had to get busy recruiting.

The Eagles management made a list of high-pedigree players to cherry pick. Some made the jump, others stayed where they were.

Carey’s contacts book is extensive, having played for Ireland in an Under 20 World Cup, professionally in France, as well as for the UAE national team.

It is the clubs he represented most recently in Dubai – Exiles and Hurricanes – who feared the worst, though.

But Mike Wernham, the coach of Hurricanes, says collateral damage has been minimal.

“We have lost two players who would have started in our first team,” Wernham said.

“I met with both players. Whilst we were disappointed to lose them, I know guys aren’t out here because of rugby, they are here because they have full-time jobs, and rugby is their release.

“Other clubs are able to offer finances, accommodation, etc. That is not us. We are there to provide the best playing experience possible.”