Financial toil so crippling that one club was forced to fold, the summer of 2017 will not be remembered fondly by the UAE rugby community. But with the advent of a new season has come renewed optimism.
And after Abu Dhabi Harlequins swept all before them last season, the 2017/18 campaign, blighted by the cost-cutting summer crunch, has begun with a rich variety of challengers looking to take them down.
Mike McFarlane’s men have already relinquished their hold on one of the five jewels in their 2016/17 season crown when storied rivals Dubai Exiles won a thrilling Dubai Sevens title earlier this month – hoisting a trophy at a tournament they started over 50 years ago for the first time in more than a decade.
Jacques Benade’s side are making up for lost time in more ways than one. Their defence of the West Asia and UAE Premiership titles from two years ago was shoddy 12 months on as they fell by the wayside while Quins and other rivals strengthened.
They tore into new boys Dubai Eagles – created in the summer and given a chair at UAE rugby’s top table immediately – on opening night in September and followed that up with victory over Dubai Hurricanes.
But three successive defeats have followed, to Quins, Bahrain and Jebel Ali Dragons, the trio leading the way at the top of the West Asia Premiership after five games in what has been a disjointed start to the season.
Only a point separates joint leaders Bahrain and Dragons, and second-placed Quins, going into 2018. Exiles are seven points adrift of Quins but will hope their Dubai Sevens triumph reignites their bid for glory.
Quins claimed the quintuple a year ago while Exiles won the double prior to that. But everything so far suggests picking a winner of the WAP, UAE Premiership, UAE Premiership Cup and West Asia Cup will be an absolute lottery.
The four main contenders appear to be in a league of their own. All have scored north of 160 points (Dragons have the most with 194, Bahrain the least, 160), and all have shipped less than 100 (Bahrain 64, Quins 96).
Quins and Bahrain drew 15-15 at the end of September – Louie Tonkin still searching for a maiden win over Mike McFarlane.
The West Asia side have improved dramatically during the Welshman’s 17 months in charge. Dragons, meanwhile, continue to look impressive under the stewardship of former dual code international Henry Paul, having made giant strides last term.
If any team looks more of a threat to Quins’ haul of trophies, it is them, although they will be smarting following a defeat to Exiles at the Sevens that they didn’t feel was strictly legal.
A tantalising January schedule – featuring Dragons hosting Bahrain, Quins hosting Dragons and then Bahrain the following week – means the teams will have to come out of the blocks all guns blazing in the new year.
There will be no room for error, with Exiles looming in the background, waiting to pounce on any mistakes.
Meanwhile, Canes, Abu Dhabi Saracens and Eagles look likely to be left fighting for scraps – although each has their own agenda. Canes will fiercely want to exert their grip on fifth spot, while they can be pleased with progress – a semi-final place earned at the Sevens after they overcame Bahrain in the last eight.
After Dubai Wasps were forced to fold in the summer, there were real fears Sarries would follow suit after they were shorn of players mounting into double figures. They were also kicked out of their Al Ghazal home in August.
Yet playing numbers have hardly been higher, and while they won’t threaten the silverware and suffered the ignominy of being Eagles’ first prey, getting through the campaign would represent massive success for director of rugby Stephen Hamilton and Co.
As for Eagles, they are just trying to build a nest among the established core sides. A maiden win as a club came perhaps sooner than expected, against Sarries in just their second game.
That has given them a launch pad and they will just look to maintain their lofty status among the elite and build for the future – a thriving mini and youth section has already been established.
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