After a summer occupied by recruitment, rumour and the revelation that former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips is now a coach here, finally the 2018/19 UAE rugby season is imminent.
And if the previous campaign is anything to go by, we’re set for another fascinating installment of the West Asia Premiership.
The landscape of Gulf rugby was completely changed by the fierce nature of the competition from last year between a new, established elite of Jebel Ali Dragons, Bahrain, Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
It feels like the spark of what was a powderkeg of epic action in 2017/18 has only just gone out – Quins’ utter dominance of two years ago replaced by a symphony of unbridled entertainment and complete uncertainty as to who would win what.
The West Asia Premiership went down to the final game of the season, while Exiles recovered from three straight, early destabilising defeats to their three rivals to enter a four-horse title race.
They actually came out on top overall with two major trophies lifted, the Dubai Sevens and UAE Premiership, while Bahrain won the Asia Cup, a first piece of silverware in eight years.
We should prepare ourselves for the same again this time around, with the usual suspects remaining in the frame – even if there are some doubts as to whether Quins can maintain an all-out assault on all trophies with the continuing difficulties they encounter both on and off the field.
If any club is set up to deal with adversity, however, it is them, led by the stoic Mike McFarlane. Adversity was faced head on when talismanic captain Ben Bolger was forced into retirement on the eve of last season because of repeated concussions.
Three core players of the quality of Brian Geraghty, Willie Umu and Patrick Jenkinson would be missed by anyone and enough to see other teams totally combust. Yet Quins, realistically, should have been crowned Premiership champions.
Only a Herculean performance from Dragons on the final day in Bahrain – a bonus point win claimed in the most arduous of circumstances – denied them.
By the time they faced rejuvenated Exiles in the UAE Premiership final, they resembled a heavyweight boxer out on their feet. They had given their all and had nothing left.
Dragons’ heavy recruitment and the stardust signing of Phillips as coach makes them favourites to retain their crown, while Bahrain and Exiles have retained the core of their squads while adding or welcoming back quality.
Scrum-half Ed Armirtage’s return to Exiles from the UK and UAE winger Charlie Sargent’s from injury cannot be overstated.
The biggest question mark is hovering over Quins, but their resolve and the sheer will of McFarlane might well keep them in the picture.
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