Hurricanes demand respect as they begin title defence

The Dubai Hurricanes captain reckons his side are never afforded "any respect" despite being the top team in the region for the past two years.

Reaching out for success. Players from Dubai Hurricanes, left, and Abu Dhabi right, fight for the ball during a clash last season. Both sides are hoping for a strong campaign in the new campaign.
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The Dubai Hurricanes captain, Chris Gregory, reckons his side are never afforded "any respect" - even though they have been the top team in the region for the past two years. The defending champions kick-off their Arabian Premiership defence against their city rivals Dubai Dragons at the new new rugby facility, The Sevens, tomorrow. Despite their recent dominance, the majority of talk during domestic rugby's off-season has centred around the advance of Abu Dhabi Harlequins.

Quins have been termed the region's new "glamour" club, following the influx of two new coaches, a raft of new players, and a high-profile associate deal with the English Premiership club Harlequins. Their summer push has also prompted predictions of a revival from the sleeping giants, Dubai Exiles - relegating the current champion side, Hurricanes, to a mere afterthought in most people's predictions for the new campaign.

Gregory, who also plays for the Arabian Gulf, believes that will work in his side's favour when the talking finally stops and the action begins. He said: "It seems to have happened again where we are the underdogs, despite having won it for the past two seasons. "No-one pays us any respect. It has been like that forever for us. We really enjoy it because it means we have to keep proving ourselves to everyone.

"We know what we have done, and what we are capable of. We hear, 'Oh, Hurricanes are not going to do anything this season' - then we just come back and win it again." At the request of the clubs, and with the aim of increasing the amount of games involving the top sides, the Gulf union (AGRFU) have introduced a new tournament this term. The Super Five will pit together the Hurricanes, Dragons, Exiles, Abu Dhabi and Muscat - meaning the best players will get more game-time than ever before in the region.

"Older guys like myself will probably be laid up in bed by Christmas," joked the Hurricanes and Arabian Gulf winger Graham Brown of the new development. "It will be very competitive this year. Rugby out here has come on leaps and bounds." Before the Hurricanes assumed their mantle, their opening day opponents the Dragons were the perennial champions. They have spent the past two seasons rebuilding, and - despite losing the influential former Gulf captain Diarmuid O'Malley to retirement - they believe they are more than ready to challenge this time round.

The Dragons captain, James Wellings, is excited at the addition of a new fly-half to his line-up - not least because it means he can move back to his preferred position in midfield. The arrival of Henry Connell, who played national league rugby for Otley back in England, could provide the spark for the speedy Dragons back division. "Henry is looking very sharp," said Wellings, who is a secondary teacher at Wellington International School in Dubai and a member of the Gulf's sevens squad.

"We have a lot of new players. The pack in particular has been strengthened, especially the back-row. "That is what we need if we are going to compete with Hurricanes and Abu Dhabi." The Exiles, the team everyone else likes to beat most, have endured a fallow run by their own standards recently. They have seen first the Dragons, and lately the Hurricanes supersede them as the Emirate's top club.

Furthermore, initial signs suggest the Exiles will have little say over running the new rugby facility, the Emirates-owned Sevens. Having been turfed out of their iconic former home in Al Awir, which was bulldozed to make way for the Meydan project, they are looking to become more proactive in recruitment. That drive started with the appointment of the popular former Abu Dhabi captain Wayne Marsters - who remains on the AGRFU's coaching staff - as head coach this summer.

Bahrain, Doha and Kuwait Nomads take the Arabian Gulf Premiership up to seven teams. However, the financial constraints involved in travelling such vast distances to the majority of their away matches is likely to hinder a sustained title push from any of them. The economics behind entering a team in regional competition has already accounted for Muscat. The Oman club have been surviving on good will and astounding player commitment since their club-house was closed 18 months ago.

Despite fielding a competitive starting XV which finished fifth last term, Muscat were forced to withdraw from the Premiership. Now they will solely participate in the cups and the newly-inaugurated Super Five competition. "Without the money generated at the club-house, we have been struggling to cover travel expenses," said the Muscat captain and Arabian Gulf flanker Karl Sutcliffe. "Also, with the weekend in Oman still being Thursday/Friday, it makes it very difficult for the players.

"If we have a match in Dubai, the players have to drive for five or six hour to get there, play, and then head straight home afterwards."