The domestic rugby season was thrown into controversy yesterday after Abu Dhabi Harlequins were awarded the West Asia Premiership title – despite hardly any clubs being aware that the championship was being run on a league format.
Clubs had been fulfilling their 2016/17 fixtures under the assumption that both the WAP and UAE Premiership seasons would come down to finals – the West Asia showpiece to be played on March 31 and the UAE title up for grabs a week later on April 7.
West Asia Premiership and Gulf Conference Competitions Regulations for the current campaign posted on the Asia Rugby website in September state that the competition is played across 14 rounds home and away and that the winner is the team with the most points.
But Quins had no idea their 47-7 victory over Jebel Ali Dragons in Abu Dhabi on Friday night meant they had usurped Dubai Exiles as West Asia champions.
Ghaith Jalajel, Asia Rugby’s development consultant for the UAE region, told Sport360: “It is correct the West Asia Premiership is won on points, so whoever finishes top of the table is the winner.
“The play-offs they have to play later is for the West Asia Cup, where we have the top and bottom four playing. One plays four and two plays three and then a final. There is a Cup and a Trophy. The UAE Premiership is first v second in a play-off final.”
Quins were only made aware of the actual rules by Bahrain, who seemed to be the only side aware of this.
It has left a bitter taste among their competitors though, especially Bahrain, Doha, Exiles and Dragons who were all in contention for a top-four finish in the WAP which they believed brought with it a play-off berth to vie for the West Asia title.
Dragons director of rugby Paul Hart fumed: “Our understanding has always been that the top four teams in the West Asia league go into the semi-finals on March 24. Therefore the only thing won to this stage is home advantage in the semi’s
“It’s like awarding Wasps the cup in the English Premiership before the play-offs have even started. We are working hard to qualify for the semi-finals and like all competitions the champions are crowned when they win the final.”
2015/16 champions Exiles have been below par this term, but a bonus point victory over Abu Dhabi Saracens in their final game of the campaign at The Sevens on Friday ensured they went above Dragons into fourth spot, which they believed at least gave them a fighting chance of reaching the post-season.
“We were all under the impression that there is a semi and a final in the West Asia Premiership,” said coach Jacque Benade.
“Top of UAE Premiership and second place also play of in a final. I just don’t know why do you have semis and finals if it is not for the league competitions.
“We were still fighting for a top four under the impression that we can still win the WAP if we can make the play-offs. When we travelled to play Bahrain and Doha they were all talking about the importance of having a home semi-final.
“I know it was a big issue from last year at the end of the season and as far as I know it was discussed with the UAE Rugby Federation by the clubs to bring in a semi-final and a final. In the UAE premiership it was just a straight final between first and second.”
Alex Natera’s Doha, unlike Exiles, were guaranteed a play-off spot, and the Qatar-based coach branded the revelation “rubbish”.
“As far as we are aware the West Asia Premiership is to be decided on March 31. I did read (something about the changes) on social media but just dismissed it straight away.”
Quins, unsurprisingly, were left ecstatic at the news, confirming them as winners of three trophies this season having also captured the Dubai Sevens and West Asia Champions League titles earlier in the campaign.
Head coach Mike McFarlane said: “The title has been won. It’s two different competitions. I had to check this with West Asia and UAE RF. It’s fantastic to claim the league after a sustained effort from the boys. It was a great way to secure it with a clinical performance against Dragons.”