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.
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.”