Mike Wernham is realistic enough to know Dubai Hurricanes face a huge task to break into the coveted top four of the West Asia Premiership elite – but he and his players are determined to fight tooth and nail to get there.
Four years ago, Canes reached the UAE Premiership final against Abu Dhabi Harlequins. They had been head and shoulders above anyone else in the lead-up to the final during the regular season and came in as heavy favourites.
But they capitulated and were soundly beaten 39-19 by Jeremy Manning’s men at The Sevens – and Quins have been on the rise ever since. Canes, meanwhile, have been steadily falling and currently reside in limbo.
They are unable to break back into the elite, while they were a cut above the bottom two sides, Abu Dhabi Saracens and Dubai Eagles, last term, when finishing fifth in the Premiership.
They face Eagles in the 2018/19 season opener this Friday, a repeat of the West Asia Trophy final from March. Canes edged that encounter 31-22, but Wernham knows his side face an altogether different beast when they clash with Eagles this weekend.
“We’re going in blindfolded as there’s a lot of talk about who they’ve brought in, but we’re excited to go there,” said Wernham.
“We’re not expecting the same team that we played in the Trophy final. They’ve got a full year under their belts and got the monkey off their back against Saracens (Eagles’ first win as a club) last year so we know this is a game they’ll be targeting – particularly with a few guys who used to play for Hurricanes.
“It’s the start of the season and we know it’s going to be difficult chasing the bigger teams with bigger pockets, but as always with Hurricanes we’ll try and grit it out, do our best, keep turning up and keep working hard for the entire season and see what we get out of it.”
Defence has been a glaring issue for Canes for a number of years and to rectify that, they have brought in former Eagles head coach Pat Benson, while they have also made exciting moves on the player front – the most eye-catching being the addition of Saki Naisau from Jebel Ali Dragons.
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“We’ve got some exciting players, our back line should be at another level so we should be scoring a lot more tries,” added Wernham.
“Defence was an issue last year so we’ve brought in former Eagles coach Pat Benson so we’ll have some defensive shape.
“We’ve still got (former Wales Sevens player) Matt Pewtner in charge of the backline and attack play and I think the players are starting to get on the same hymn sheet in terms of the training field, now it’s about transforming it onto the field and a game situation.
“I and the players are just glad the season’s here. We’ve had two good runouts, against Sarries and the club memorial game.
“The boys have been in the gym since June. We’ve got some really good numbers and some quality new additions.
“Although the numbers aren’t as massive as they were last season the quality has risen.
“We’ve brought in some new players which will raise competition and that’s so important. The last thing a coach wants is for guys to be coasting in their shirts.”
One huge blow ahead of the season is the news that club captain, stalwart and UAE international Dave Knight will miss the entire campaign with injury.
“Dave is out for the season with neck and shoulder injuries, so that’s a big blow but hopefully someone can fill his shoes,” he added.
Louie Tonkin has worked wonders in his two years in charge of Bahrain – turning a team who could be labelled remote even by Middle East standards from perennial also-rans into heavyweights.
When he took over in the summer of 2016 the club was coasting along, perhaps happily so, perhaps not. But in the last 24 months the young coach, who has extensive knowledge in the semi-professional ranks back in his native Wales, has seen his team gate crash the UAE party.
It’s a party that boasts an exclusive guest list. Tonkin, 35, has rubbed shoulders with former dual code New Zealand league and England union international star Henry Paul during his tenure at Jebel Ali Dragons.
He will now pit his wits against Wales and British & Irish Lions icon Mike Phillips at Dragons this year – not to mention former Emerging Springboks fly-half Jacques Benade, in charge at Dubai Exiles, as well as Mike McFarlane at fellow Gulf rugby giants Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
But Bahrain well and truly broke into that elite group last season – with the major honours in UAE and Gulf rugby shared between these four sides.
Bahrain have put in the hard yards in the last two years and they will have to go the extra mile once again this season if they are to succeed, thanks to a tweak in the UAE rugby fixtures calendar.
Added competition means the teams in the West Asia Premiership will play each other three times over the course of 2018/19 – with Bahrain travelling to each opponent twice, while also playing each team once at home.
Ultimately five of their Premiership games will be at home, with 10 away. But Tonkin sees the bigger picture. “Amidst all the chaos of the restructure this summer, I’m delighted we’re finally going to be playing a game,” he said of this weekend’s big Premiership kick-off – away at Quins.
“There’s still some formalities to organise but the guys in charge have come up with a good fixture list. The season is longer now because we play everyone three times per season, which is great. It’s harder but that’s what we want.
“We want to play more games and we want the game to grow. The only way it’s going to happen is to play more games so we’re happy with that.
“It’s a lot harder for us as it means we have to go to the three big teams – Quins, Dragons, Exiles – twice and they come to us once. We’ve had the short straw but it is what it is and we’re looking forward to the weekend and getting it all started.”
Bahrain are no strangers to doing things the hard way – they went nearly three months without a Premiership home fixture from September to December last season.
They also agreed to travel to Abu Dhabi and Sri Lanka in last year’s Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League pre-season tournament.
Unlike this year where each side had a home game, Bahrain decided to play both games away in order to keep the competition alive – Harlequins might have been forced to pull out had they travelled amid financial concerns away from the field.
And despite facing the prospect of two thirds of this season’s Premiership games being away from their stronghold, Tonkin is relishing the opportunity ahead, the chance to prove themselves.
“Our hopes and aims are pretty straightforward and I imagine it would be the same as everyone, they want to achieve success,” said the former Pontypool and Carmarthen Quins coach.
“For us it’s about backing up what we did last season. We didn’t pull off the league victory, but we were happy with the cup. There was a lot of chat about the play-offs and Quins and Exiles bringing weaker sides over to us so we just want to back our performances up and establish ourselves as one of the main sides in the Gulf, and achieve silverware at the end.
“It’s a bit of a cliché but we want to take it one game at a time. We have four games straight up now, three (of the opening five) away, at Quins, Exiles and Dragons, so we’ve got to really focus on those and pick up some results to put us in a good position at the start of the season.”
After sacrificing their home game in the Champions League a year ago, Bahrain were rewarded with the title this summer, beating Quins at home 27-21 a week ago to add the title to their West Asia Cup triumph last term – a first piece of silverware in eight seasons.
“We managed to give 27 players a good hit-out against Quins and Kandy in the Champions League and we feel like the squad are in a decent place ahead of the weekend,” added Tonkin.
“We go to Abu Dhabi in a rerun of last weekend, both teams have had a look at each other so I’m sure there’ll be some changes. We can’t wait to get out there and make our first trip to the UAE.”
Like most sides, Tonkin has been busy off the field this summer in a bid to keep the club improving – something that has been a trend since he took charge two summers ago.
But while recruitment has been heavy in recent summers, this year it has been about adding quality to the foundations that have been built in those two years.
“We kept 25/26 of the boys who’ve been with us the last two seasons so we’ve got that continuity, and that’s the key, while adding in the new boys and giving us added improvement,” said Tonkin. “We’re in a really healthy place.”
The former Cardiff University coach has dipped into the market back home in a bid to strengthen, with several Bahrain stalwarts having departed.
“We managed to retain the majority of the squad but we did have some big exits unfortunately,” he added.
“We lost a few boys to semi-pro contracts in Hong Kong. A few boys who’ve been around here a long time have left or retired too. Ollie Luke and Toby Borrow went back to the UK, Rich Wilkinson, who played for Bahrain for 10 years or more, has called it a day.
“We had to recruit a little bit and we managed to get some Cardiff Uni graduates again which is amazing. I think the squad’s in a good place.
“We have to manage the squad well because we don’t have an established second team like most of the other clubs, so we’re at a bit of a disadvantage there, but we’ll do our best and focus on Quins this weekend.”
After nearly ending their debut campaign in Middle East rugby with a trophy, Dubai Eagles cannot wait to take flight for the 2018/19 season this weekend.
Eagles grew into their fledgling campaign and although there were major learning curves and disappointments, there were also a few standout moments.
A maiden victory in just their third game – a 17-11 triumph over Abu Dhabi Saracens – in September was a great moment, as was their appearance in the West Asia Trophy final, with the Eagles going down to a narrow 31-22 defeat to Dubai Hurricanes.
Canes are the opponents on Friday as the West Asia Premiership campaign kicks-off, and after a heavy recruitment drive this summer, the second-year club are excited to build on their foundations.
“We’re looking forward to the weekend, it’s going to be a cracking game,” said fly-half and director of rugby Sean Carey.
“Our last game last season was against Hurricanes and it’s the first game this season so it’ll be good to see how much we’ve progressed over the summer.
“They’ve had a few new boys in over the summer and so have we, so hopefully it should be another cracking game along the same lines as the final in March. Hopefully we can push them as close as we did then.”
Arguably the headline arrival for the Dubai Sports City-based club, at least in terms of domestic transfers, is Isaac Porter, the Number 8 who excelled with Sharjah in their 2015/16 UAE Conference triumph.
He has been joined by a few old Wanderers teammates in light of the club’s decision last week to withdraw from the 2018/19 season.
“We’ve got a few new boys in, Isaac as well as a few more from Sharjah since they folded, which are great additions,” added UAE international Carey.
“A few Beaver Nomads players too who are looking quite good. A lot of Irish boys, Stephen Murphy has come over, Olly Johnson who has played for Hurricanes in the past and represented England rugby league’s second team, he’s back after taking a few years out and is a good addition to the back line.
“Harrison Astley, a UAE U19 international, at full-back, is a very exciting talent. We’ve got Jamie Frost too, who has played for Doha in the past and back in England attended Sedbergh, so has a good background.
“We’re a lot stronger this year but so is everyone else so we’re cautious. We know a lot is expected of us after the end to the season. Every single game is tough but we’re looking forward to it.
“We’ve been training hard over the summer. We had a long pre-season and we’re fit and ready to go. We had a training match against the Dragons last week which was a good crack. We just want to get on the field.”