West Asia rugby preview: Questions facing UAE and other Gulf clubs on eve of new season

Has Middle East rugby ever been in better health? Paul Radley writes the Gulf game is ever-improving and more compelling than ever as he looks at the key factors in play before the season starts.
Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins contested the UAE Premiership final last season. Vidhyaa for The National
Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins contested the UAE Premiership final last season. Vidhyaa for The National

DUBAI // Has Middle East rugby ever been in better health? At the start of the new recreational season, there are so many reasons to be cheerful.

Two boys raised in Dubai have earned professional contracts with one of the biggest clubs in England. A number of others have trialled with some of the leading teams elsewhere in the UK, too.

Pedigree coaches have made the journey the other way, setting up base in the UAE. The national team coach is eyeing a tilt at World Cup qualification. And more Emiratis than ever before are playing rugby - girls included.

And if any other reason were needed to feel excited, the domestic top-fight campaign starts this weekend. Here are some of the questions most avidly awaiting answers ahead of the big kick off.

Who can upset the big two?

Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins duelled for the major trophies last season, and they will start off best placed to do the same this time around, too.

Harlequins are already one title up. They will be formally presented with the Western Clubs Champions League trophy, after they won the curtain-raising tournament two weeks ago, following their opening game against Dubai Hurricanes.

Of last season’s chasing pack, the greatest intrigue from these shores surrounds Jebel Ali Dragons.

Dragons made the headline acquisition of the summer – or arguably ever in the history of Gulf rugby – when they landed Henry Paul as their new coach.

More Gulf rugby

• Paul Radley’s preview: The team-by-team guide to the Gulf clubs for 2016/17

• Andy Buist: Ready to defy doctor’s orders and go again for Jebel Ali Dragons

• Sophie Shams: The leading Emirati female rugby player is counting down the days to her senior debut

• Video: RAK Goats rugby club have a new sand pitch home

What will the “Henry Paul Effect” be?

Not so long ago, the Dragons were entirely peerless in West Asia rugby, with a blemish free record for two seasons running, winning back to back trebles.

Scaling those heights again will be tough for any side, given the advances all clubs have made in the past two seasons.

However, the feel-good factor has been tangible since Paul, the storied former England Test player, left the UK to move to Jebel Ali this summer.

Optimism abounds. Recruitment has been in overdrive. They have an enviable coaching team. The Dragons’ fire has been refuelled.

Can Saracens rebound?

After all the noise that surrounded their rise and rise in the first three years of their existence, the music stopped for Abu Dhabi Saracens last season.

Or, at least the volume was turned down, after their development was arrested by a summer of turmoil a year ago.

Despite that, the 2015 champions retain a sizable chunk of the side who shocked the field by becoming the leading team so quickly after formation.

“Teams playing us can expect a physical encounter,” Winston Cowie, their new coach, has said ahead of the new season. No change there, then.

Will the UAE team benefit?

Apollo Perelini, the UAE coach, has an ambitious plan to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. If they are to make good on that, they need a flourishing league supporting them.

The main competition has been rejigged, with the UAE and Gulf Premierships, as well as the West Asia competition merging into one elite, cross-border event lasting all season.

The eight-team league means guaranteed tours to both Doha and Bahrain. Those are formidable away trips, which – at the level the UAE operates at, at least – are as close to Test match conditions as club players experience.

Will the rest of the Gulf benefit?

Doha and Bahrain, the two leading Gulf clubs from outside the UAE, have been craving a season-long, pan-Gulf league for years.

They must have grown sick of the sight of each other, given how often they have traded blows in the four-team Gulf Premiership.

It is conceivable they might start to rue what they wished for, though. The northern powerhouses are always intimidating on home soil.

The fact they have more flights and overseas tours than their UAE rivals, though, means that if they are going to win the title, they have to do it the hard way.

pradley@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE

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Published: September 21, 2016 04:00 AM

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