Jebel Ali Dragons have turned up the heat on themselves by taking their play-off dreams down to the final day of the West Asia Premiership season – but captain Ross Samson says he expects his team to thrive rather than wilt in the heat of battle tomorrow night.
Dragons welcome Abu Dhabi Saracens to their newly-refurbished Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence home where victory will secure fourth spot and a chance at West Asia Cup glory.
One glance at the table would suggest Dragons are heavy favourites for victory but what it won’t show is how determined the visitors will be to secure a win that aides their chances of a home play-off against Dubai Hurricanes in the end-of-season West Asia Trophy as well as ensuring they don’t finish bottom of the table.
And Samson is expecting a ferocious encounter.
“To be honest, every game in this region is hotly contested and every club wants bragging rights over the other so I’m expecting them to turn up and throw everything at us,” said the Scotsman.
“We had a close game up at their place this year and it will be the same this week.
“We are looking forward to finally playing at home again for the first time in 2017 and it’s a must win game for us. Everybody at the club is hungry to make the top four play-offs.”
Dragons have long been in the ascendancy to claim fourth ahead of fallen champions Dubai Exiles, but defeat to Dubai Hurricanes last week means they must win tomorrow.
Samson added: “We were poor last week against a gritty Canes team that took their chances really well, so it’s now last chance saloon for us and I’m expecting a big reaction from the boys.”
As for Sarries, what the table also doesn’t immediately reveal is how unlucky Winston Cowie’s side have been this season – with five of their nine defeats coming by seven points or less.
“The team has put a lot of effort in this season although that hasn’t shown on the table,” said New Zealander Cowie.
“We are looking to finish strongly against what will be a desperate Dragons outfit. Being desperate brings its own pressure and it will be interesting to see how the Dragons deal with that.
“It’s exciting for us at this stage of the season to play in such a game and if we come out on top we have home advantage going into the Trophy play-offs. There is plenty to play for and we are up for it.”
Doha coach Alex Natera is using the pain of the club’s past to fire his players up for the end of the season, in which they will be targeting West Asia Cup glory.
A revelation at the end of February revealed that this season’s West Asia Premiership was being run on a league and not a play-off format – something clubs were infuriated about but had actually known about since the summer when Asia Rugby sent each club a copy of the rules and regulations.
It means Abu Dhabi Harlequins are WAP champions, but Natera backed the belief voiced by most other clubs that the play-offs, which will be used to crown the Cup winners, are what will determine the true champions.
“The season has become a massive anti-climax, but the play-off winner is the main one,” said Natera.
“As far as we are concerned on the evening of March 31 the champion side will be announced. Some of the lads were deflated a bit but I just got them to cast their minds back a few years ago where they won the league (Gulf Top 6) and then lost the final (to Abu Dhabi Saracens).”
Doha were scheduled to welcome Dubai Hurricanes this weekend, but tomorrow (Friday’s) game has been forfeited by Canes, who are struggling for numbers.
And it is another issue which has left Natera and his side upset.
“I am very disappointed that Hurricanes have forfeited due to player availability,” added Natera, who suggests Canes should be fined.
“It kills our run in to the semi-finals. We will not have played a game in four weeks by the time we face Bahrain. I’m really disappointed that this can happen in the West Asia Premiership.
“Other unions would administer relegations or significant fines for this. It has massive ramifications on our prep for rugby but also on our bar takings and club finances.
“Missing the finances that come from a home game v Al Ain and now Canes is not great for a club that has to fly nearly every second weekend.
“Almost every away game this year I have had to field second team players and go short on the bench because of player availability, visa restriction etc. I’ve even brought in retired players and ex-club players living in the UAE.
“If canes had 12 players unavailable then those spots should have been filled with second team players – simple. then just live with the result and get on with it.
“If this league is to be taken seriously on the world stage this sort of thing should not happen lightly. Teams that can’t or won’t fulfil their fixtures should play in other competitions where the consequences are not so great for the team that is let down.
“Just to make matters worse both Bahrain and us have finished in the top four, and we have fulfilled all our fixtures, yet the losing team in the semi-final next week has to play off for relegation out of the West Asia Premiership. Perhaps the league should reconsider this based on this forfeit.”
Canes head coach Mike Wernham, however, said the request to cancel the fixture was made with the UAE Rugby Federation in good time due to several player injuries and others attending a wedding.
“We forfeited the game. We put the call in two weeks ago. I made checks on availability and we’ve got an in-house wedding of a former player of ours, so we won’t have the numbers available,” said Wernham.
They say honesty is always the best policy and Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin admits he has no regrets over the club’s part in Abu Dhabi Harlequins being crowned West Asia Premiership champions.
Clubs had been competing in the tournament under the assumption that the league title would be decided via a play-off system.
In fact, rules published by tournament organisers Asia Rugby and sent to clubs before the start of the 2016/17 campaign clearly indicate that the Premiership is played on a league format with the team in first place at the end of the season crowned champions – as was the case in 2015/16.
This anomaly was not brought to light by anyone until Bahrain blew the whistle at the end of February, contacting Quins who had no clue their 47-7 defeat of Jebel Ali Dragons on February 24 meant they were champions.
It cost resurgent Bahrain the championship, but Tonkin insists it was the right thing to do.
“The rules got sent out to all clubs in September and it was clear this was the structure,” the Welshman said ahead of his side’s visit to Quins tomorrow (Friday).
“The issue with other clubs perhaps has been a lack of communication and marketing around the competition. It could have been documented or publicised better and then there would have been no confusion.
“I think that’s something that needs to be improved upon in the coming seasons so that everyone is aware they are two tier competitions.”
Tonkin, who has transformed Bahrain into championship contenders since taking the top job last July, feels Quins are deserving champions.
“I’m a big ambassador of the fact league champions are league champions,” he added.
“It’s a regular season league and the team that consistently wins more than anyone else should rightfully be crowned league champions and I don’t think anyone would complain that Quins have been the most consistent and best side in the league.
“They are rightfully and deservedly the champions. My opinion is there is no case for teams not knowing because the document was there to read from July.”
Bahrain head to Abu Dhabi to take on the champions tomorrow (Friday) but what looks like a mouthwatering spectacle and a possible West Asia Cup final has been dampened by Dubai Hurricanes forfeiting their trip to Doha.
That hands Alex Natera’s side a 20-0 bonus point win, meaning they cannot be caught in second place by Bahrain, thus ensuring a home semi-final for them in the Cup.
“It’s a dead rubber,” added Tonkin.
“We’re really disappointed Canes couldn’t field a side to go to Doha. We had a bit of a lifeline as we had hoped to go to Quins and play for a home semi-final which would be hugely significant. But it happens in Gulf rugby and it is what it is.
“What will be difficult for me and Mike (McFarlane, Quins coach) this week is we have a semi-final to play a week later and out of necessity both teams will have to rest some players.
“All I’ve heard from my players is how much we’ve improved on last season which we have. We went to Quins last season and lost by 100 points so we’re adamant and determined to show how far we have come as a squad and a club in a season.
“It will be played in a good spirit and we’re looking forward to a good game.”
Quins stalwart Ben Bolger has also played down the insignificance of the clash, insisting his side will want to maintain momentum.
“The boys are looking forward to getting back to playing,” he said. “We want to finish the league strong and keep the momentum going.”