The opening day of any sporting season drums up a cauldron of emotions, objectives and a hint of entering into the unknown. The start of this year's Arabian Gulf Premiership is no different. This is not a league containing a mix of players who bring distinct styles from around the world, providing the spectator with an exciting brand of quick-tempo rugby with the emphasis based on skill and swift handling.
Unlike many leagues around the world it is hard to spot the major powerhouses from the eight closely-matched top-flight clubs, four of which are from the Emirates, and each will tell you that they have a chance to claim some silverware come March. The intrigue lies within how each club musters a team together mostly on the basis of expatriate players. Being amateurs, or at most mildly semi-professional, the league relies on the influx of expatriate workers to provide the backbone of the squad.
The economic downturn, which has seen players head home, has been a disruptive factor for each club. The situation could be compounded over the next few seasons. This factor can provide a great leveller, but for Abu Dhabi Harlequins, the Premiership champions, the recession has not halted their march for more glory as they bid for an ambitious league and cup double this term. "There has not been that many comings and goings at the Quins," says the head coach Alistair Thompson.
"We have been lucky to keep hold of the mainstays of the team and no one has had to leave because of the economic climate. "This is a sport that holds strong ties to the expatriate community and with that it comes firmly with the territory. "It has hit the Dubai teams a little harder than in Abu Dhabi. Speaking to fellow players, some have left but they have been replaced by newer players. "Whether they are left weakened is a different proposition.
"On the other hand a real quality player could become available in the region. It is a lottery." The recent success has been a reversal of fortunes for Abu Dhabi, who were the perennial whipping boys of the region as little as three years ago. With 45 senior players at the club, backed with a junior section as well as a women's team, the club has the foundations to become a force in the Gulf, according to the Harlequins captain Dave Stolzenberg.
"Our goal this season is to win both the league and cup," he says. "When I joined three years ago, we won nothing. "But having won the cup two years ago and the league last year, it is our quest to win both." Stolzenberg believes the league can only improve if the quality exiled players put down roots in the region. "We have 'A' grade players that have come here and help us be successful, but we also have players that have never played before," he says.
"I think the standard of the league can improve by players staying a little longer to help develop the sport and develop new players. "With the continued development of Abu Dhabi, I would hope that there will be two clubs here in a few years time. "The more rugby played in the Gulf the better, not only for competition but for the development of rugby in the region." While the Quins have not suffered from an exodus, their status as champions hands the incentive to their rivals as the team to beat.
The club is not taking the challenge lightly, starting their pre-season a month earlier than their rivals. Thompson expects a title challenge to come from the majority of the opposition. "This will be a very interesting season. Six of the eight teams will be seriously thinking that they can win the Gulf Premiership, the three Dubai sides certainly do," he says. "Since winning the league last year, each side will be gunning for us and I feel we are the team to beat."
"The team has prepared very well and I was happy with what I saw at the Al Ain tournament and the match conditioning our players put in up there." The Quins kick off their campaign against the Dubai Hurricanes in the opening round of the Arabian Cup today, a fixture that has added spice following Abu Dhabi's league triumph last season in their 23-23 draw with the Hurricanes. "They will definitely be out for some revenge.
"But the cup is a competition we desperately want to win back having lost in the semi-finals last year," says Thompson. "A win would be the perfect start to the season and will help us gather momentum for the start of our league defence." Elsewhere today, Bahrain will host Doha in a 5pm kick-off, Muscat make the trip to the Dubai Exiles at the same time while the Kuwait Nomads host the Dubai Dragons in a 7pm kick-off.
firstname.lastname@example.org Visit https://www.thenationalnews.com/sport for a video on the Quins' pre-season preparations