After a tumultuous couple of campaigns, reaching the West Asia Premiership play-offs is no less than what Jebel Ali Dragons deserve, according to captain Ross Samson.
They did it the hard way too, taking the season down to their final game, but they snagged fourth spot and with it a play-off berth after a 29-12 victory against Abu Dhabi Saracens on Thursday night.
The bonus point triumph means Henry Paul’s side finish fourth, ahead of ousted West Asia and UAE champions Dubai Exiles, and will now play West Asia Premiership champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins for a spot in the West Asia Cup final on March 31.
And, following victories home and away against last season’s fallen giants, Samson says their shot at both Cup and UAE Premiership glory is richly deserved.
“We like to make things difficult for ourselves don’t we?,” joked Dragons’ Scottish skipper after Thursday’s win.
“That’s the nature of play offs – do whatever you can to make the top four. It wasn’t the smoothest of seasons but we have come a hell of a long way since last season. We have pushed the top three teams close on multiple occasions and beat Exiles twice so we are deserved fourth.”
There is plenty if logic to Samson’s words. Dragons beat Jacques Benade’s Exiles 42-30 at home in October and 27-10 at The Sevens last month.
And even though they lost five games against seven defeats (Exiles won six and lost six), Dragons did indeed push the three sides above them close.
Dragons lost by a total margin of just 10 to Doha over two games and in arguably the most memorable match of the campaign led Quins for much of their November 3 encounter before losing 31-30 in a game that lasted 100 minutes.
There is plenty of unfinished business for Samson and Co. They travel to Abu Dhabi to play Quins next Friday having gone down 47-7 to Mike McFarlane’s men just three weeks ago.
At a windswept Zayed Sports City, Mike McFarlane’s men sent out an ominous warning to Jebel Ali Dragons, who they will face next week in the semi-finals of the West Asia Cup, that they are fired up to complete a clean sweep of honours this season.
Quins added the Premiership title to their Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League at the end of February, but will boast a five-trophy haul in 2016/17 if they can also lift the Cup and UAE Premiership.
The Premiership title may have been sewn up in calamitous circumstances – Quins were handed the title when last night’s opponents informed them last month the competition was actually based on a league format and not knockout – but they did not take their foot off the pedal against Bahrain.
“This was not a dead rubber for us, definitely not,” said Scottish scrum-half Andrew Semple, who shone at fly-half with Luke Stevenson rested.
“Last time we had a two week break we didn’t come back from it well. We’ve got an unbeaten home record here and we’re not going to give it up easily just because it was a dead rubber.
“We said that with the wind it would be a tight first half and we talked about using the elements to our advantage in the second half and it worked well. We played in the right areas.”
Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin shouldered the blame for perhaps focusing too much on next week’s mouthwatering Cup semi-final clash against Doha, but is adamant his team will quickly erase the memory of their biggest defeat of the season.
“You can’t turn up against a team like Abu Dhabi and expect to compete when you’re not on par mentally,” said the Welshman, with things going wrong for his side early in the day following a four-hour delayed flight.
“They’re a very, very good side and showed why they’re league champions and any team coming here has to be 100 per cent switched on and accurate if they’re going to have any chance of winning.
“There’s no question we had one eye on the semi next week. I take the responsibility for that, perhaps focusing our game plan too much on Doha when we’re coming to the league champions last game of the season and trying to gain momentum.
“That’s my fault and I’m 100 per confident the boys will bounce back and be a completely different side next week.”
With this game being a write off in terms of significance there was a concern it would lead to a dour encounter. But any such fears were swept away by the snarling wind bellowing around Zayed Sports City in a frenetic first 40 minutes.
The hosts opened up a 12-0 lead through lock Patrick Jenkinson’s simple opening try from a lineout, before flanker Gerrit Visser finished off a slick handling move instigated by Willie Umu’s barnstorming run.
But the red wave retaliated to level at the break. First hooker Lindsey Gibson dived over when he cleverly took a quick tap when Quins were penalised after Bahrain had driven them back via penalties and penetration.
Tonkin’s side were suddenly rampant and after a multitude of phases that criss-crossed the field, centre Lewis Chance pierced a hole in a tiring Quins defence – Umu’s yellow card didn’t help – to dot down under the post to level the scores.
It should have set up a scintillating second half, but instead Bahrain imploded.
Quins were 24-12 up with two tries in a minute. First they were given a penalty try before rapid Irish centre Brian Geraghty chipped ahead and outpaced the visiting defence, collecting brilliantly with one hand to cross.
Down to 14 themselves following the penalty try, Bahrain briefly weathered the storm before the floodgates opened.
Visser went over for his second before replacement Vito Tuivione sliced through, another replacement Tom Brown streaking clear to make it the magnificent seven for Quins.
The away side stuck to their task and were rewarded with a consolation score at the death for winger Greg Heath.
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.”