Their fairytale ending wasn’t to be but Al Ain Amblers can be rightly proud of the storybook turnaround to their 2016/17 season.
It’s been a hectic seven months for the Garden City side, who went from self-relegation from the UAE Premiership after just one game in September to the UAE Conference Top 6 final last weekend.
It ultimately ended in disappointment as 14-men Amblers went down to a Kent Watene sudden death try scored in extra-time after the same player had touched down in the final seconds of normal time to take a breathtaking game beyond 80 minutes.
Al Ain director of rugby Rocco De Bruyn nervously paced up and down the touchline throughout the game’s duration and although he was left distraught, he thinks Amblers march to the final gives the club great hope for next season.
“I’m very proud of the boys,” said De Bruyn.
“A game of missed opportunities but a fitting game for a final. It was very hard to play with a man down in a final, but the guys really left everything on the pitch. It gives us something to work for in the next season.”
Another proud man was club chairman Sean Emmett, who played at hooker in the showpiece.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow,” he said of defeat, having seen hulking prop Epeli Davetawalu initially put Amblers 26-19 ahead with their fourth try before being sent off minutes later to leave them up against it.
“The Quins showed their resilience and were able to push us to the end and their fitness came through. As chairman, I’m super proud of the team. As a member of the team, we grew as a group of players and formed a great bond this season.”
Although the over-riding feeling will be heartbreak for a while, when they reflect on 2016/17, Amblers should do so with a lasting feeling of having restored pride.
Their first campaign back at the top level in 2015/16 had been a turbulent one – with just two victories claimed in 18 Premiership and West Asia Championship games.
But this past campaign began under a shroud of inner turmoil, with star players like Niko Volavola, Emosi Ratuvecanaua, Jerry Kilicanasau, Esekaia Dranibota and Sakiusa Naisau plucked by elite rivals like Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Dubai Exiles and Jebel Ali Dragons.
The club took the difficult decision to withdraw from the Premiership following an opening 45-3 defeat at the hands of Abu Dhabi Saracens, but fortunes didn’t immediately improve a level down in the Conference.
They opened their campaign with three defeats to Dragons 2nds, Quins 2nds and Exiles 2nds. They didn’t earn a first win until October 7 – a 16-15 victory against Dubai Wasps.
Steadily, results improved though. They won five of their next seven to even scrape into the end of season Top 6 at Heartbeat Tigers’ expense – both teams finished on 24 points but Amblers progressed due to a far superior points difference.
It was in the Top 6 that Amblers came into their own. Early season Conference pace-setters Dragons 2nds and Exiles 2nds fell away as Amblers raced to first place, earning 21 points from four wins and a sole defeat.
It saw them qualify for the final, where they met Quins 2nds who finished runners-up. The ultimate prize was cruelly taken away, but they have certainly laid down roots for further promise in the future.