Arabian Gulf rugby used to be an old man’s game, but Abu Dhabi Harlequins have proved that situation to be outdated.
The capital’s oldest club have revived their glory days with probably the youngest team to have consistently played top flight rugby in this region.
The game here has usually been the preserve of established players who have arrived in the region from overseas to work while in their mid-20s – at least.
The leading side in the first half of the 2014/15 season, though, routinely had at least five teenagers in their first XV squad.
It was good enough to win them the two major titles to have been handed out so far – the UAE Premiership and the Dubai Sevens.
They had fallen at the final hurdle on every occasion in the previous two seasons, despite having many of the leading players in the country at their disposal.
Allied to the few old war horses who continue to excel in the front row, giving youth a chance has ended that cycle.
“It has been a long time coming,” Andy Cole, the Quins chairman, said of reversing the trend of recent near misses. “A couple of years ago the club was split between some of the old-fashioned coaches, who felt the younger players should stay with the under 18s.
“They didn’t want them blooded in the first XV, but times have moved on now. Some of these guys are bigger than the older guys anyway.
“We have been trying to push young players through as a club, because I think that is the whole point of rugby.
“If you have home-grown players to bring through that is what all sport is about.”
At age 29, the Quins player-coach Jeremy Manning has appeared like an old stager at times, with teen talent such as Iziq Foa’i, Matt Hawley and Adel Al Hendi alongside him.
There was the impression at times that Ed Lewsey, the veteran scrum-half, was retaining his place in the squad specifically so Manning did not feel too old.
“I raise the average age and Jerry is still in his prime,” Lewsey said after the Sevens win on Pitch 1 last month.
“It is good fun trying to keep up with them.”
Quins will have their triple-crown credentials examined with a challenging trip to Doha, who they beat in the Sevens final in December, in the opening weekend of the Gulf Top Six.
In the only match taking place in the UAE, Jebel Ali Dragons will look to avenge their costly defeat to Abu Dhabi Saracens at the end of last year.
They travel to Al Ghazal tomorrow to face the side who deprived them the chance to defend their Premiership title by beating them in the final regular season match.
Dubai Hurricanes, who are aiming to go one better than the runners-up finish they managed in the Premiership, travel to Bahrain.
THE SIX TEAMS
Abu Dhabi Harlequins
Qualified: UAE Premiership champions
Modest expectations last summer after losing a raft of senior players, including the club captain Billy Graham. But their young side hit back in fine fashion, winning the Premiership and Dubai Sevens with a stylish brand of attacking rugby.
Abu Dhabi Saracens
Qualified: Third in UAE Premiership
Stunned most people – not themselves – when they comprehensively outplayed the treble-defending Jebel Ali Dragons in the UAE Premiership. That clinched their place in the Top Six and also marked them out as possible dark horses for a final place.
Qualified: Gulf Premiership runners-up
The most successful club in the history of rugby in the region will start as outsiders for the title this time around, despite being so strong at home. They were second to Doha in their league before Christmas, but still had a negative points differential.
Qualified: Gulf Premiership champions
No wonder they pushed so hard for a change to the structure of Gulf rugby last summer. They could not have been more dominant in the four-team Gulf Premiership, with a clean sweep of six wins and a positive points difference of 329.
Qualified: UAE Premiership runners-up
Hurricanes had the same lead-in to this competition last year: fine form in the UAE Premiership regular season, then comfortably downed in the final. They will not want the same result this time around, given they were off the pace in the last Gulf Top Six.
Jebel Ali Dragons
Qualified: Fourth in UAE Premiership
Hurting, physically and mentally, after failing to reach either final while trying to defend their Premiership and Sevens titles before Christmas. Their efforts were hindered by injuries to a string of senior players, including the UAE captain Adam Telford.
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