End of an era as Mike McFarlane reflects on Abu Dhabi Harlequins success

Matt Jones - Editor 15:39 09/02/2019
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Mike McFarlane (r) celebrates winning the UAE Premiership, Quins' fifth and final trophy of a stunning 2016/17, with brothers Sam (c) and Ben Bolger.

Mike McFarlane admits he has been “blown away” by all the messages of congratulations after bowing out as Abu Dhabi Harlequins head coach following an unprecedented three-and-a-half year period of success.

The Englishman’s scintillating run as Quins boss came to an end last month when the club announced he had returned home to the UK, believed to be for family reasons.

It brought the curtain down on a glorious tenure for Quins in Middle East rugby, with McFarlane overseeing a period of unparalleled dominance after taking up the position of head coach in the summer of 2015.

“Obviously the club means a tremendous amount to me and I’ve been blown away from all the messages I’ve received recently,” McFarlane told Sport360.

“From playing to coaching I have fantastic memories on and off the pitch.”

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McFarlane – a former Quins player who was forced to retire after breaking his leg for a second time in September 2013, in only his second game back following an initial 15-month layoff – instead turned his drive to coaching, and how it paid off.

Under previous coach Jeremy Manning – a former Munster and Newcastle Falcons full-back – Quins won the UAE 2014/15 UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens double. But it was under McFarlane that the club were truly launched into orbit, winning another eight trophies under the Englishman.

It was a galaxy inhabited solely by them in an unfathomable 2016/17 campaign in which Quins won the quintuple – the West Asia Premiership and Cup, UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League.

The grip on the quintuple was stubbornly relinquished in a highly-competitive 2017/18 season, encapsulated by the fact the West Asia Premiership title was only wrestled from their grasp on the final day by Jebel Ali Dragons who pulled off a miraculous bonus point victory away in Bahrain.

They retained the Champions League crown and lifted the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup. And even though Bahrain usurped them as Champions League winners this season and they suffered defeat to Dubai Hurricanes at the Sevens, McFarlane still leaves the club well placed – they have a 19-point lead over Dragons atop the UAE Premiership.

To put McFarlane and the club’s feats into context, Quins have won 10 of 18 trophies on offer in Gulf rugby in the previous four seasons – 10 of 20 if you include the two claimed already this season (the two titles in 2014/15 were achieved under Manning’s reign).

Abu Dhabi Harlequins won three straight Dubai Sevens titles from 2014-16.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins won three straight Dubai Sevens titles from 2014-16.

Quins have been fortunate to have McFarlane, who introduced a deep-seated culture of hard work and success that filtered down to all levels throughout the club.

But the departing coach admits it is he who has been the lucky one. “I’m lucky the committee gave me an opportunity at such a young age but I’d like to think I’ve repaid their faith with the senior section in a great position in UAE and West Asia with an embedded philosophy, structure and organised set-up,” added McFarlane.

“I transformed the club, but there was a revolution where three things helped to stimulate the progress. The club had a very ambitious, supportive committee led by (chairman) Andy Cole, a culture which I took time to embed through meetings with all seniors and continued integration, and the final piece was getting the best people in the right positions.

“The likes of Chris Kitchen as strength and conditioning coach and Paddy Hegarty at Vogue Fitness. I’ve always said how lucky I’ve been to be able to call on the expertise on the medical side from Patrick Milton, and bounce ideas off and observe sessions from top quality coaches such as Alistair Thompson, Rory Greene and Simon Baker.”

Of course, all the hard work and dedication paid off, with the trophies pouring in. “Winning trophies. I’m not going to hide it. I love winning as everyone does,” he added.

“Sharing the shed song with the boys is the most satisfying reward after a hard week of training and especially with a bit of silverware at the end. It doesn’t get better than that. It was a hard slog in all honesty even though it may not have always looked like that from the outside.”

And of course, the glorious 2016/17 campaign is unlikely to be repeated in UAE rugby for a long time – if ever.

“It was amazing to work with so many different players but if you want to talk about winning trophies, the 2016/17 season was beyond any expectations and we set them high,” McFarlane continued.

“It still amazes me now. It’s probably the most competitive the league has ever been. There were four or five very strong teams. To win every trophy at first team level is mind blowing.

“To share that success, feelings and memories with close friends like Ben and Sam Bolger, Phil Abraham and Luke Stevenson was very special.”

Asked for the key to his success, McFarlane added: “I guess for me it’s walking the walk. I had very high expectations of the boys and expected them to have the same of me for my sessions. It’s surrounding ourselves with the best blokes who buy into the culture.”

McFarlane enjoyed Christmas at home with his wife Mandy and daughter Madison, as well as the extended family, before taking in one final piece of UAE life, the golf at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at the beginning of January.

Now it’s onto greener pastures, although whatever McFarlane does in the future, it’s sure to still be on a rugby field.

He added: “The future for me, I have some fantastic opportunities coming up starting with Las Vegas 7s. Then I have a brilliant job lined up to start in August where I will get the chance to start the next journey.”

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