'Go back to the roots of the game': Dubai Hurricanes coach calls for UAE rugby overhaul

Mike Wernham worries about losing players, saying Premiership must be expanded to include as many as 10 or 11 sides

Abu Dhabi, March, 22, 2019: Abu Dhabi Harlequins v Dubai Hurricanes in action during the UAE Premiership semifinal at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi. Satish Kumar/ For the National / Story by Paul Radley
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Mike Wernham, the Dubai Hurricanes coach, believes the domestic rugby needs to be overhauled to arrest the decline in playing numbers.

The season will reach a climax on Friday when UAE Rugby finals day takes place at The Sevens, Dubai. However, clubs and administrators remain divided over the structure of competition in region.

Wernham, whose Hurricanes side saw their campaign end last weekend when they lost in the UAE Premiership semi-final play-off, says the Premiership needs to be expanded to include as many as 10 or 11 sides.

“Collectively, we need to try to expand the game,” said Wernham, whose Hurricanes side won the Gulf Men's League title at the Dubai Rugby Sevens in December.

“It is just getting smaller and smaller. We have to be custodians of the game and try to make it bigger, otherwise all the work people have put in, way before my time, is going to be in vain.

“We are going to keep losing players, and that is not what we want. Go back to the roots of the game.”

This season the top flight dwindled to six teams. Abu Dhabi Saracens pulled out of playing out of Premiership rugby last summer, while including Doha in the West Asia tournament remains unfeasible.

Other clubs, such as Dubai Wasps and Al Ain Amblers, have suffered in recent years after trying their hand at top-tier rugby.

Dubai Tigers and Al Ain will meet in the final of the UAE Conference on Friday. Whether either would be willing to accept promotion to the top flight remains to be seen.

Tigers are the defending Conference champions, yet opted to remain in the second tier this season, having won the final against Sharjah Wanderers last year.

Sharjah, who are one of the country’s most historic clubs, withdrew from competition altogether this season, due to its diminishing player pool.

There have been a spate of forfeits in all divisions this season. Even the biggest clubs in the region have suffered.

Dubai Exiles, for example, were within inches of winning the West Asia title – despite having seen their second XV disqualified from the Conference for failing to fulfil four fixtures over the course of campaign.

“As the head coach, I can’t afford to lose players," Wernham said. "We need players to play the game.

Dubai, 15,Sept, 2017 : Mike Wernham, Coach , Dubai Hurricanes during the  Memorial match at The Sevens Rugby club in Dubai. Satish Kumar / For the National /  Story by Paul Radley

“With the social life there is in Dubai, why would I want to go to Bahrain for the second time this season?

“We know how Bahrain are run, they are an extremely professional outfit, and we will be well beaten.

“Fortunately, with the camaraderie at our club – and it appears different at other clubs – we have gone there twice and not forfeited a fixture, which I am really proud of.

“There has been forfeits all over the place. Way too many. We went down to Saracens with 13 players in the Conference, and we played the game. You do whatever you can.”

Wernham insists teams are becoming sick of the site of each other, given the frequency of matches between them.

“You have some really good talent in the UAE, but to try and keep hold of these guys you need more than just playing the same teams,” he said. “The West Asia Premiership is six teams, including Bahrain. We have played each three times.

“Let’s have teams pushed up from the Conference. Let’s make it a 10 or 11 team league, and it can be split off halfway if you are sick of being beaten by 40 or 50 points.

“We can’t just keep doing what we are doing at the moment, because it is not the right model, and we are going to lose players.”