Jebel Ali Dragons have come a long way this year, but Imad Reyal insists there is always room for improvement and has urged his teammates to strive for more next season instead of settling for second best.
In some ways it’s been a welcome return to form for Dragons, who reached the UAE Premiership final for the first time in three seasons.
Things have changed considerably at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence since that 2013/14 campaign in which back-to-back trebles were clinched.
But, after two seasons in the wilderness, Dragons stepped back into contention this season. Their appearance in the UAE Premiership final followed a top four finish in the West Asia Premiership, which saw them enter the West Asia Cup semi-finals.
They also made the Gulf Men’s League final at the Dubai Sevens, so there’s definitely cause for optimism.
But Reyal isn’t satisfied with appearing in finals, he wants Dragons to be winning them.
“We’ve set the benchmark,” said the Sri Lankan-born Reyal.
“We’ve had a couple of really bad seasons and now we’ve made the final, which was our goal. We just couldn’t finish on a high but it’s a stepping stone for next year.
“We’ll have a few players come in and a few going so we’ll look forward to another good season, but I think it needs to go higher again. Doha and Bahrain are getting better and the standard is getting higher, so we’ve got to go to another level too, starting with pre-season.”
UAE international Reyal is likely to be in the mix for national team selection for next month’s Asia Rugby Championship Division I tour to Malaysia, and he heaped praise on his club coach Henry Paul for the impact he’s had on the team and him in his first season at the helm.
“I’ve been at Dragons a long time, so it’s good to come back this season with Henry in charge after a couple of bad years,” added Reyal.
“Henry’s an amazing coach and has made me a better full-back. Usually I play pretty loosely, don’t kick well and do whatever I want but he’s taught me a lot, my kicking is better, my positional play is better. The management has been really good.”
Emosi Ratuvecanaua lay strewn on the ground, motionless as his ecstatic teammates jumped and danced around him after his 80th minute try had clinched the quintuple.
The exhausted Fijian could only lie prone as physio Patrick Milton tended to him after he had given what little energy he had left into a brilliant 30m burst find his way to the line to settle the match.
His second try of the game killed off a spirited Dragons effort in the UAE Premiership final, with a 30-20 victory at Dubai Sports City confirming Quins as champions of five trophies this season.
Ratuvecanaua had given every last drop of effort he had left this season to secure the quintuple, something head coach Mike McFarlane said symbolised why his players have reached such unprecedented levels of success in 2016/17.
“It’s a long old season and they’ve put in the work and been relentless since June,” said McFarlane after the final whistle.
“I said to them in the changing rooms before the game ‘you’ve got yourselves here today’. They’ve been guided but they’ve put in the work. They’ve all got jobs, families, but they’re hitting the extra training sessions, getting the strength and conditioning results.
“What we’ve set up for them, they’ve taken to the next level by having such enormous expectations of themselves and today crowns all that incredible hard work and the five out of five. It’s an outstanding achievement, I can’t ask for anything more.”
On the final day of the domestic rugby season, Quins were given arguably one of their sternest tests. Dragons had lost all three previous encounters to their famous old foes this season. It was if that pent-up frustration manifested itself into one final 80 minutes of rugby.
Henry Paul’s side came in as underdogs, had nothing to lose and threw absolutely everything they had at Quins for one final time this season.
“You’re never going to get an easy game against Dragons. They’re a well drilled team that carry an attacking threat,” said McFarlane of a team Quins had beat 47-7 to win the West Asia Premiership at the end of February – this result an anomaly for clashes between the sides this term.
Things could have been very different had Dan Bell potted a tough-looking penalty from about 40 metres out and near to the touchline with three minutes remaining and Quins leading 23-20.
It went just wide and Ratuvecanaua then sealed the win.
McFarlane added: “We dealt with it and I thought we were really excellent today. At the breakdown I thought we were exceptional. I thought we deserved it, perhaps by a bigger margin, and that’s not anything against them, I just thought we were outstanding.
“I’m really chuffed for the boys. It’s an incredible achievement (to win five trophies), never been done before and we’ve really taken rugby to the next level.”
After winning everything on offer this season, it’s difficult to see how this season can be toppled. Knowing perfectionist McFarlane, he will find a way. Although he wants his players to enjoy the break between now and pre-season.
“Despite an incredible achievement, this won’t be the end for us and we want to be going to greater heights next year. It’s the Quins way. We’re looking for the next step, what is it, how can we achieve it,” he said.
“But there will be time off now for the boys to enjoy some rest and recovery and more importantly some family time.”
Eddie Walsh expects a much closer affair when his Abu Dhabi Harlequins meet Jebel Ali Dragons in the Community League final on Friday
Quins thrashed Ian Jones’ side 72-24 in October but Walsh predicts one score will settle the final, to be played at Dubai Sports City.
“They’ve turned their season around so we’re expecting a different beast this time around,” said the Quins coach.
“I think their pride will still be hurt from that game and they’ll come at us all guns blazing.”
Defeat to Quins proved to be the only defeat of the season for Dragons, who went on to win their other seven games as they finished top of the pile, one point ahead of Quins.
Walsh, whose side also lost once too, a 7-5 defeat to Dubai Wasps 2nds, added: “Earlier in the season we played a bit of a weakened Dragons and won 72-24. It was second or third game and we ended up playing without front rows so I don’t think that was a true reflection of Dragons, it was just an aberration.
“I can’t imagine there’ll be more than one score in the game. But we have confidence and we’re looking forward to playing these guys.”
Walsh revealed he and his players had not believed they would be playing for silverware at the start of the campaign, but said his charges are chomping at the bit for the final having played just twice in 2017.
“The guys are over the moon. We haven’t had a game in a few weeks and only played twice since Christmas so there’s a lot of pent up frustration, everyone’s amped for the final,” he said.
“We started off as a developmental, social team, and I don’t think at the start of the season anyone would have envisioned us making a final, let alone having three teams in a final. What’s happened this year is simply unbelievable.”
Jones, meanwhile, is hoping Dragons can go one better after losing at the same stage last year to Beaver Nomads.
“The boys are full of confidence and the energy in camp this week has been great,” said Jones.
“We are expecting a hard game against Quins but hope to do our club and sponsors proud by starting the day off with a win. Dragons are really excited to be in the final and make up for the disappointing loss last year to Beavers.”