Former champions Bahrain return as winds of change sweep through West Asia rugby

New season promises interest even beyond the top tier, with arrival of Dylan Hartley at Dubai Sharks

Abu Dhabi, Jan, 26, 2018: Abu Dhabi Harlequins (Green) and Bahrain (Red) in action at the Zayed sports city in Abu Dhabi . Satish Kumar for the National / Story by Paul Radley
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

It might be pushing it to suggest, as one coach joked this week, that Division 1 is the new Premiership.

But when the domestic rugby season gets under way in the Middle East this weekend, there will certainly be much intrigue beyond the top tier of the domestic game.

The five-team West Asia Premiership is not without storylines of its own. Chiefly, Bahrain will be back playing cross-border rugby competitively for the first time in two and a half years.

Back then, they became champions of the region before the onset of the coronavirus meant twice monthly, overseas travel to away games was unfeasible.

Bahrain will have a test of their credentials immediately on return to competitive action. They will face Dubai Exiles at The Sevens on Friday evening.

When Bahrain were last part of the competition, Exiles were their regular rivals for trophies. Indeed, while Bahrain were absent, Exiles went the best part of three years without losing, before they were stung by Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the UAE Premiership final in March.

Despite the return of Bahrain, the top division remains pared down to five clubs. Just over two weeks before the start of the season, it was confirmed Dubai Hurricanes had withdrawn from the Premiership.

The club remain one of the largest in the region, yet they opted to drop out of the top tier because of concerns over the number of front-row forward they would have available to play at senior level.

Rocky Truter, the Hurricanes coach, said the decision was the right one because of the reduction in playing numbers, and he points out Division 1 will scarcely be less competitive than the top division.

“I’m happy with what I have seen at training,” Truter said.

New Dubai Sharks coaches Josh Ives, Dylan Hartley and Matthew Pewtner. Victor Besa / The National

“We have a load of new guys who are hungry to represent the Canes. Playing in Div 1 obviously feels like a second division, but there will be teams in there who will be as tough as sides in the Premiership.”

Hurricanes’ demotion beefs up a second-tier competition which already had arguably the headline act of all Gulf rugby, in the form of the arrival of Dylan Hartley.

The former England captain became the director of rugby at Sharks this summer. His arrival coincided with an influx of other coaching talent, which has brought with it an increase in the player pool, too.

Sharks’ will start Hartley’s tenure by facing a side from the capital who have enjoyed a transformative summer of their own.

Abu Dhabi Pumas were known as Saracens until last season. Since then, they have ended their affiliation with the London club of the same name, and are now associated instead with the South African Currie Cup side the Pumas.

Peter Henderson, the Pumas coach who has returned to the club after a season with their city rivals Abu Dhabi Harlequins, says his side are excited for the campaign to start.

“It is great to see that Dylan Hartley has joined the Sharks,” Henderson said.

“It adds flavour to the competition, it is amazing to see and we only want the best for rugby. We are looking forward to a good game against them.”

Updated: September 29, 2022, 11:57 AM