x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Saracens to take on Fijians in landmark game in Al Ain

Partnership with Amblers will see Premiership champions develop links with the Garden City club.

John Smit, the former South Africa captain, will be part of the English champions’ party who will spend six days in Al Ain next month.
John Smit, the former South Africa captain, will be part of the English champions’ party who will spend six days in Al Ain next month.

ABU DHABI // Saracens, the pre-eminent rugby union side in England, believe they are opening up "a new frontier" by playing the Fijian champions in a groundbreaking fixture in Al Ain next month.

The north London club announced yesterday they will play in the UAE for the first time on March 9 when they take on Nadroga Stallions at the Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting and Golf Club.

The Heineken Cup quarter-finalists were initially approached last summer by the Al Ain Amblers to forge a rugby partnership and discussions subsequently progressed to Saracens playing a full fixture at their club's ground.

"We talked first about sending out coaches and players," Edwards Griffiths, the Saracens chief executive, said yesterday. "But we realised it is a way for us to experience exceptional facilities during the English winter and build a new frontier for the club."

Saracens, who will spend six days in the Garden City, will become the third English club to play in the Abu Dhabi in just over a year after London Wasps hosted Harlequins at Emirates Palace in February last year. Griffiths said that LV=Cup game had "no bearing" on the their decision to visit the UAE.

Saracens are pioneers in the English game having staged competitive games at Wembley Stadium and also coming close to recently staging a European game in Cape Town.

"We don't want to be the Harlem Globetrotters but the world is an increasingly small place and the Middle East and UAE are renowned as a sporting centre of excellence," Griffiths said. "We hope to make it a regular event."

Tom Adrian, the outgoing Al Ain Amblers chairman, led the search for a rugby partner last year and felt Saracens "were a good local fit".

"We were looking for a link with a club in the UK and we approached Saracens as they are a great club, first and foremost," Adrian said. "They are the Premiership champions, have local connections here with Abu Dhabi Saracens and with the crescent on their logo it is a good local fit."

The Amblers will erect temporary grandstands and hope to attract a crowd of 3,000 for what will be their highest profile fixture since the Asian Five Nations fixtures between Arabian Gulf and Hong Kong in 2007.

But staging a game between a star-studded Saracens team and a Fijian club side, who form the backbone of the national 15-man and sevens team, will eclipse that. Saracens were initially pitched against a Fiji Barbarians team but, according to Adrian, they withdraw after the money they set aside for a week's preparation before their trip had to be diverted to the disaster fund created following the flooding and landslides.

Saracens are expected to be bring over a 45-man party, including the former England and South Africa captains Steve Borthwick and John Smith, and the cost of the trip for both teams will be absorbed by Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting and Golf club which is owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa bin Zayed.

Saracens will benefit from use of the facilities which boasts three floodlit rugby pitches, a fully-equipped gymnasium and a swimming pool.

"We feel we have the best rugby facilities in the country," Adrian said.

Nigel Wray, the Saracens chairman, said: "This is a hugely exciting opportunity for the club. We are looking forward to a tough match against a team packed with Fijian internationals and to experiencing the fantastic facilities.

"The UAE is already established as a centre of excellence in world sport, and we eagerly accepted the invitation Al Ain Amblers."

Al Ain boast youth teams from Under 6 to U18, including a girls U18 team, an adults team and a veterans team.

Kit Philip, the incoming Al Ain Amblers chairman, hopes the interaction with the host of international players the professional English side will bring with them will have a galvanising effect on his club.

"It's fantastic," Philip said. "It's great to be linking up with a club in the UK. We hope it will be a reciprocal arrangement where we send good youth players to their academy and they send coaches out there and give us a leg up. It's a great idea and really puts out club on the map.

"We do have good players at the club but to be able to rub shoulders with the good and the great of Saracens is pretty special."

 

kaffleck@thenational.ae

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