Al Ain Amblers hope to complete a miraculous turnaround by lifting the UAE Conference crown when they meet Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the Top 6 final tomorrow (Friday).
Amblers’ 2016/17 season started disastrously when the senior side withdrew from the UAE Premiership after just one game in September with rivals ravaging them of their star players during the summer.
They fielded just one team in the Conference and their turnaround following an undercooked start there – in addition to their Premiership nightmare – will surely go down as the biggest feel-good story of the season.
“For me the final is deserved with what we’ve been through,” said Amblers’ director of rugby Rocco De Bruyn, who stepped into the coaching void when initial incumbent Niekie van Blerk returned to South Africa following a job offer.
“It’s a big surprise, it was not expected at all. I was hoping to win a few games to get the spirit and morale up but the winning culture has gone from strength to strength and the boys are playing their best.”
Despite three opening defeats in the Conference, things started to pick up for Al Ain and they won five of their next seven, with a final day 63-10 mauling of Abu Dhabi Saracens 2nds seeing De Bruyn’s boys scrape into the Top 6 reckoning thanks to a superior points tally over Heratbeat Tigers.
There the Garden City side flourished, finishing top with four wins and just one loss – including victories over early-season pacesetters Dubai Exiles 2nds and Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds.
In fact their only defeat was in their last game – a 34-33 loss to tomorrow’s final opponents Quins.
Although they have lost star names like Esekaia Dranibota and Emosi Ratuvecanaua to Quins, Sakiusa Naisau to Dragons and Jerry Kilicanasau to Exiles, De Bruyn insists the club’s famous spirit remains.
“Nothing has changed. We lost all those players at the start and a few boys have since gone, so we don’t have individuals as strong as we did but we have a great team spirit,” added the South African.
“Things are good at the club and the guys are in good spirits. I don’t think there’s a coach who doesn’t want to be in a final. Our short term goal was to reach the Top 6 which we just did and once there obviously we wanted to go for the final.”
De Bruyn has been in the UAE for a decade and has been on the Amblers’ board for five years. And although he has only served as an assistant coach to the club’s under-14 side previously, he said it was the right thing to do take the reins once Van Blerk departed.
He added: “Niekie went back to South Africa as he got a good job offer and his family were still back there too, he’s got two sons 10 and 12 so dad needed to be there, so he had to make the call. Family comes first.
“We needed to find a new coach but instead of that I said I’d step in and do what I could for the rest of the season, and the guys have really stepped up.
“I’ve not coached since I’ve been here for 10 years, but it helps that the guys have been willing and enthusiastic.”
Quins finished six points adrift of Amblers in second, but with many of the team having pushed for first team places throughout the campaign, coach Mike McFarlane is expecting them to provide stern opponents.
“The quality of the twos team is incredible,” he said.
“Week in, week out we have 50 plus lads pushing for spots in the first and the second team with boys still missing out.
“This a deserved final for the endless hours of hard work they’ve put in since pre-season. The twos play some fantastic rugby and will take it to Al Ain this weekend in the final.”
In the Bottom 5 final, meanwhile, Dubai Sharks face Heartbeat Tigers for a chance to salvage some silverware from the season.
Jebel Ali Dragons stand between Abu Dhabi Harlequins and immortality as the capital city club go in search of an unprecedented fifth trophy of an already remarkable season.
If Mike McFarlane’s men can claim the UAE Premiership title at Dubai Sports City tomorrow, they will complete a clean sweep of honours – with no team having previously won a quintuple of trophies in UAE domestic rugby history.
Quins started the search for silverware by lifting the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League trophy by beating Dubai Exiles and Sri Lanka’s Kandy in pre-season.
They added the Dubai Sevens title in December – claiming that accolade for a third-straight year. The West Asia Premiership crown was earned in February and Quins beat Bahrain last week to be crowned West Asia Cup winners.
Adding a fifth honour would be a hugely impressive feat, given the rise in standards and player ability in the Emirates in recent seasons. With a 3-0 record over Dragons this season, however, flanker Ben Bolger insists Quins will be disappointed to fall at the final hurdle.
“It’s the last one. (A chance to win) five out of five. It will be special occasion for the club. Dragons are a good team so we’ll look forward to it, but I think we’ll be disappointed if we don’t do it,” said Quins’ heartbeat.
“We’ve beaten Dragons three times already this season so if we go down there and don’t come away with the win we’ll only have ourselves to blame.”
The Premiership showdown is the jewel in the crown of the inaugural UAE Rugby Finals Day, with the UAE Conference Top 6 and Bottom 5 and Community League finals all being played on the same day, at the same venue.
Quins have teams in three finals and McFarlane is dreaming of a special day for the whole club, saying: “It’s time for the boys to step up one more time and leave everything on the pitch.”
Quins beat Dragons by a solitary point in their opening bout of the season, a 31-30 epic in the West Asia Premiership in November. It was a rather more straightforward 47-7 triumph in February – a result that confirmed them as Premiership champions.
Their third victory was perhaps the most impressive of the lot, battling back from having a man sent off to triumph 23-14 in the West Asia Cup semi-finals.
Despite their seeming inferiority complex when it comes to Quins, coach Henry Paul insists his players are determined to spoil their parade.
“Our boys are revved up and it’s great to get another shot at Quins who deserve a big pat on the back for their successful season,” said the former New Zealand rugby league and England union international.
“It will be a hard fought game I’m sure, there’s a lot riding on it for them going for a clean sweep, and I’m sure we’ll give them our best shot and give a good account of ourselves.”
His enthusiasm is shared by prop and director of rugby, Paul Hart, who feels Dragons are due a win.
“As a team and club we are very excited to compete for a title,” said the UAE international.
“We feel we are not fair off clicking and producing a strong performance. Quins are on fire so it’s another perfect chance to test ourselves and the boys are pumped, even an old boy like me. It’s a final so let’s see what happens.”
Louie Tonkin claims his Bahrain players restored pride to the jersey with a hugely impressive 2016/17 season, which culminated in defeat to rampant Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the West Asia Cup final on Friday.
Bahrain have lived in neighbours Doha’s shadow for many years, but following an improved showing 12 months ago, stormed into contention for silverware under the stewardship of Welshman Tonkin.
Bahrain finished third in the West Asia Premiership behind Quins and Doha and then beat Alex Natera’s men in Qatar two weeks ago to set up the final clash with Quins.
They pushed Mike McFarlane’s men mightily close at Quins’ Zayed Sports City home on Friday, eventually going down 31-25.
And while his players were left hurting following a bitter end to the campaign, the former Pontypool and Carmarthen Quins coach insists he feels nothing but “massive pride” for his charges.
“Obviously we’re disappointed to lose. You don’t come to the final to lose but I said to the boys, it’s not just about winning and losing, it’s the pride we’ve put back into the jersey this year,” said Tonkin, 34.
“The fact we’re even here is a great achievement and it’s just the start of the journey for us. I told the guys that.
“We were dominant for half an hour and then the last 10 (of the first half) we gave them momentum and they scored, which was a turning point. We showed in patches how good we can be and I just think we needed that for longer periods.
“It’s been the story of the season, exceptional in short periods. And we’ve done that and wiped the floor with teams. There’s been good games and bad games, but that needs to be the standard for longer periods. This is where we want to be now, fighting for these cups.”
And while the pain of defeat will linger, Tonkin is excited by the future for the club – having made a final despite only being in charge of the club for eight months.
“We’re only going to get better,” he added.
It’s the first year of our project. We want to keep that group together and get better. We’ve had a really abnormal season with injuries and the character of the boys has been exceptional.
“To score those two late tries at the end was fantastic. We were three scores down and scored 12 points in the final five minutes. It showed tremendous character and summed up our season. We’ll make that group a lot stronger next season.
“Hopefully next year we can be fighting for home draws. We’ve had two tough final games, away at Doha and at Quins, and we almost made it. But I’m happy for the boys, very proud and it’s just the start of the journey for us.
“I’m disappointed for the guys as they’re hurting but I’ve had a great time here so far, I’m loving it and it’s just the start.”