‘Premiership rugby is a big step up’: Dubai Sharks undecided over promotion to top tier

Club claimed UAE Division 1 title in Al Ain at the weekend, now they are considering whether to join West Asia’s big league

Dubai Sharks, in dark blue, won the UAE Division 1 title after beating Abu Dhabi Harlequins II, which means they are eligible to join the West Asia Premiership next season. Ruel Pableo for The National
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Dubai Sharks remain undecided over accepting promotion to the top flight of regional rugby, having sealed their biggest success to date on Saturday.

The Sharks claimed the UAE Division 1 title when they beat Abu Dhabi Harlequins II in the final in Al Ain.

The win means they are entitled – but not obligated – to join the West Asia Premiership next season.

Promotion would mean away flights to fixtures in Bahrain and Doha, as well as weekly encounters against the leading sides in the UAE.

Charlie Taylor, the Sharks chairman, said accepting the move up presents challenges as well as benefits. As such, the decision will be left to the club’s senior men’s squad to make, rather than imposed on them.

“Ultimately, it is down to the players,” Taylor said. “We as a club will do whatever is necessary, but we cannot force those boys to go up to the Prem and tell them that is what they have to do.

“We will have players who are desperate to go up and challenge, but we also have schoolteachers who are concerned about the extra strain on their bodies.

“We don’t pay players and never will, that is just not in our DNA, but we invest our money in coaching.

“We were not by any stretch of the imagination the biggest, most physical team in the league. But from our structure, it is very evident they are well coached.

“Stepping up to the Prem is a whole different kettle of fish. You need a bigger squad, then there is the player welfare aspect because it is a lot more physical.”

When the idea of the Sharks joining an expanded top tier was floated last year, they were given until around July 31 to make a decision, before planning started on creating a fixtures schedule for the new season. Taylor expects to have a decision before that time this summer.

While optimism abounds in the wake of their Division 1 title win, that is offset against the practicalities of going up.

As well as the added financial burden of cross-border travel, there is the physical and mental challenge of stepping into a more intense competition.

The Sharks are also set to lose a number of first-choice players, most notably from the tight-five positions in their pack.

Many of the leading clubs in the top tier have extensive recruitment networks and the means by which to attract players from overseas to join them.

Despite the size of its mini and youth section, and the quality of coaching on offer at senior level, Sharks do not have quite the same pull as some of the established Premiership clubs as yet.

Taylor recalls a time when their recruitment was little more scientific than finding the biggest guys in the place when they were out on club socials.

“Rugby is a by-product of mates getting together, playing rugby and enjoying it,” Taylor said.

“That is how the success of our club has been built since we started recruiting again and building before Covid.

“We would go up to big blokes in McGettigans and ask if they played rugby. Three of the guys we met that way five years ago were part of the side in the final on Saturday. Now they are considered part of the old guard of Sharks.

“The whole club ethos is: mates first. Then after that, let the rugby do the talking.”

Four years ago, the club’s entire membership was 47, and that included social members who were by then based overseas.

Their footprint has grown significantly in the time since. There are now over 600 members in their mini and youth set up, 104 senior men and women players, plus around 160 members in their netball section.

Next season they will be implementing an Under 18s side for the first time. In time, that could provide a flow of players to the senior side, but Taylor cautioned about expecting too much before it has fully taken root.

“Obviously there is always transition and there are lots of people coming through the door at DXB airport, but we don’t know how much of a hole [player retirements and departures] is going to leave,” Taylor said.

“We just want to enjoy this for now. We were the whipping boys for a while, and weren’t even able to raise a team some weeks a few years back. Just give us a season to build and enjoy this.”

Elevation to the Premiership could, though, help the team retain players. For example, Sam Dooley, the Sharks’ captain, had signalled his intention to retire after sealing the title at the weekend, but he admits he would reconsider if the club went up.

“Not many people get to finish their career on a high, so I thought I’ll take the chance if I can,” Dooley said.

“Premiership rugby is a big step up, and will be a big commitment for the club in terms of investment. If they are wanting to do that, I would definitely consider one final season.

“If we stayed in Division 1, some of us feel it is an opportunity to make way and let the younger generation come through.

“The jubilation and excitement of winning has made the lads feel particularly positive about it all again.

“If it was a loss, I think a few of the boys would have said, ‘Yes, we are definitely hanging up our boots.’ It is funny what a win like that does. Suddenly players feel they have another season left in them.”

If Saturday was his last game, then Dooley was happy with what transpired. The Division 1 final was part of a triumphant finals day which showed the best of what UAE rugby has to offer.

“Al Ain Amblers [who hosted 27 finals at their home venue on Saturday] is an amazing club and we love travelling down there as a team,” Dooley said.

“The rugby club have always supported us through the years as well. For finals day, they put on such a great show.

“They are amazing pitches, create such a friendly atmosphere and a great family day for everybody.

“From 8.30am starting with mini and youth, right up to 10pm, it was constant rugby, and a good reflection of where the game has come to in the UAE.

“To have so many children engaged in rugby, then to have the opportunity to watch the senior men play, hopefully some of those children will aspire to play for Dubai Sharks when they get a little older.”

Updated: April 30, 2024, 10:25 AM