The two current powerhouses of domestic rugby in the Emirates played out a thrilling stalemate in the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League opening game at The Sevens – Durandt Gerber slotting an 80th minute penalty as the duo shared the spoils.
UAE rugby is surrounded by a lot of excitement right now with the national team doing well under Apollo Perelini.
That has been added to this summer by Jebel Ali Dragons appointing former dual code international Henry Paul as head coach while Dubai Hurricanes established a link with their Wellington-based Super Rugby namesake.
Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Saracens are also expected to improve, but it is the two teams who won the three major trophies last season who remain the benchmark.
“We were looking at it as pre-season, we wanted to bring in a few lads, but you can’t really take Exiles as just a pre-season game,” admitted Quins fly-half Luke Stevenson, who scored all 23 of his side’s points.
“We’re going to be playing each other three or four times this season and whoever won this one would have the momentum going into the next one.
“I think both teams were playing it down beforehand but everyone knows it’s going to be a tough one and we definitely took it seriously.”
Quins won the Dubai Sevens a year ago but they were pipped to the post in both the UAE Premiership and West Asia Championship by double winners Exiles.
Their head coach, Jacques Benade, believes last night’s result is a sign a fierce rivalry established last season is set to continue in the ensuing campaign.
“You can try to talk to your players and talk them down but it’s Exiles v Harlequins,” said the South African.
“There’s too many things that happened last year for this to be just a normal friendly. I hope there’ll be other teams picking up too, but Quins will be there around the end of the season. Hopefully we can get better as well.
“The score suggests the rivalry built last year will be exactly the same. No doubt about it. They’re a good side.”
Exiles were ahead for much of the game. It was only when Stevenson nailed a long penalty in the 76th minute that Mike McFarlane’s men edged in front for the first time.
Prior to that Exiles, led by the impressive Michael Sole, had taken a grip on proceedings.
Centre Sole, who played youth grade rugby for Exiles before attending university in Australia, opened the scoring after Gerber capitalised on Barry Dwyer’s error.
Stevenson restored parity almost immediately after good work from Dwyer but Exiles led by seven at the break thanks to Ed Armitage’s try after quick thinking from Gerber – arguably last year’s player of the season.
The second half was a largely sloppy, error strewn affair but Stevenson dragged Quins level at 20-20 with 10 minutes to go when he scored in the corner and his conversion bounced off the crossbar and over.
He booted a third penalty to seemingly give Quins a morale-boosting victory with minutes to go, but Gerber’s late intervention ensured a fascinating new rivalry continues to simmer.
Ambitious Bahrain have grand plans to establish themselves among Gulf rugby’s elite and recruiting former Pontypool and Carmarthen Quins head coach Louie Tonkin as the club’s first full-time coach is certainly a good way to gain attention.
The club developed impressively last season, scoring a shock 13-12 win over reigning west Asia champions Abu Dhabi Saracens on the opening day of the 2016 West Asia Championship (WAC) season. They eventually tailed off but still won four of eight games to finish sixth.
It was a vast improvement on the previous campaign but the new man is aiming to take them to even greater heights.
“We want to win the league, I’ll make no bones about it. I want to do very well and I wouldn’t have come out here if I didn’t think that was possible,” said the 33-year-old Welshman.
Tonkin’s own rise has been remarkable. A former Welsh basketball international in his youth, he enjoyed a stellar playing career with Coventry, Gloucester Rugby and Llandovery before embarking on a coaching path that took him to Quins, who he led into the Prinicpality Premiership playoffs for the first time in 2013.
He became head of rugby at Cardiff University in May 2014 and combined that with coaching Pontypool in June last year. Desperate for a fresh challenge, Bahrain came calling and Tonkin arrived in the Middle East at the start of the month and has wasted no time in getting down to business.
Pre-season training started last week and despite arriving in the stifling summer heat, the new man has been busy on the recruiting front.
Wingers Bentley Halpin and Greg Heath will join from Tonkin’s old Cardiff University side and he will also be bringing over three players with Welsh Premiership experience in back rowers Aidan Laxton and Lawrence Reynolds, from Bedwas and Llandovery respectively, and Llanelli scrum-half Justin James.
Also coming in are hooker Lindsey Gibson and prop Davis Tui who have been playing in Australia’s National Rugby Championship for Melbourne.
“I wanted to get a really good core of players over. I know these boys, they’re good people and very, very good players,” said Tonkin. “One of the big reasons I was asked to come here was my network of players back in Wales. The existing squad has really impressed me as well. There’s a really good spine here.”
One thing Tonkin is already aware Bahrain lacked last year was depth. After their momentous victory against Sarries, they ended their WAC campaign with a 108-7 walloping at the hands of Harlequins in March.
“We’re going to go into the season with a really strong 30, that’s something I’ll work really hard to build,” added Tonkin.
“It’s a really ambitious club. They really want to do well and I want success. I’ve done a thorough review of what was in place last year and looked at loads of footage. There’s a lot of individual talent, I just want more structure, particularly in the set-piece. We’ve got some X-factor players and with those additions I think we can really start looking at taking down teams.
“My ambition is success and it’s something I’ll be starting to drive home in the next few weeks when the rest of the players arrive.”
Noah Perelini grew up with a world-famous rugby player for a father but the teenager admits he hated the sport for years.
The 15-year-old has since changed his viewpoint and is now dreaming of following in his dad Apollo’s footsteps by becoming a professional.
Perelini heads to his native New Zealand this week to take up a scholarship at the prestigious King’s College in Auckland – a school that has produced former All Blacks Ali Williams, Ian Kirkpatrick and Pita Alatini.
He will never forget, however, the long and boring Friday nights spent at Super League giants St Helens’ Knowsley Road ground as a child watching Apollo senior barrelling through opponents and delivering the bone-crunching tackles that made him famous.
“He’s had the biggest impact on me playing rugby but when I was younger and dad played for Saints I was actually never into the sport,” said the talented No8 of his dad who was a dual code star, bursting onto
“I hated rugby because I would go to the games on a Friday evening every week. You’d stay until really
late and I was really fed up of it. It was a chore to go to the games. People would always ask me why I didn’t like rugby.”
“I never got into it as a kid. My dad wanted me and my brother to play rugby so we eventually enrolled at a local club called Liverpool St Helens and I started to really enjoy it.”
The youngster was 11 when he moved to Dubai four years ago and he credits the decision to join his father, who had taken the director of sport position at Repton School, with putting him on the path to the highly-regarded Auckland A1 1st XV Competition.
It is aired on television and a derby game between King’s and Auckland Grammar School recently drew a crowd of 4,500 people.
“I was an okay player, pretty average, but it was when we moved to Dubai and dad started coaching me that it began to click,” said Perelini, who had originally been heading to the UK to pursue a school scholarship.
“Up until then I had standard coaching from friends’ dads that ran the team. As soon as I moved to Dubai and started at dad’s academy (Apollo Perelini Rugby Skills Academy) and did one-on-one training, he started to exploit my talent. Now it’s a case of building on that.”
Although he might carry the weight of a famous surname in the rugby world, trying to make his own name in the game is not something that daunts him.
“In a way it’s daunting because there’s an expectation on me with dad’s legacy but to be honest it doesn’t really put as much pressure on me as people think,” said Perelini.
“I want to be my own player. I want to be Noah Perelini. Having dad’s influence on me is a big thing to carry but I think it helps more than anything. It’s not a burden, it’s something I embrace.”