Mike McFarlane, predictably, picked up the Coach of the Year award at the UAE Rugby Annual Awards yesterday, but used his accolade to pay tribute to everyone who has helped Abu Dhabi Harlequins achieve such an historic season of success.
Quins and silverware have gone hand in hand this season as the Abu Dhabi club blazed a trail to glory – winning the quintuple of West Asia Premiership, Dubai Sevens, UAE Premiership, West Asia Cup and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League.
And two more individual trophies followed yesterday as talismanic co-captain and flanker Ben Bolger was named Senior Player of the Season and McFarlane the UAE’s best coach as the cream of the crop in the Emirates was celebrated at Dubai’s Metropolitan Hotel.
And although he is quoted and name-checked more than most, McFarlane was full of praise for the whole club.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” he said. “It’s a great award to pick up but it’s a pat on the back for the whole coaching team, rather than just me. You look at the calibre of coaches at the club and it’s a large reason why the boys were so successful this year.
“Backs, forwards, strength and conditioning, managers, physios are all in place so I’m picking it up on behalf of them too. It’s also for the massive hours and work-rate the players have put in, everyone involved. It doesn’t come down to one person.”
It’s been a week since Quins beat Jebel Ali Dragons 30-20 at Dubai Sports City to lift the fifth trophy of a remarkable 2016/17 at the UAE Rugby Federation’s inaugural UAE Rugby Finals Day.
And McFarlane admitted he is only just beginning to realise the significance of the club’s success this season.
“Each day it feels bigger and bigger,” he added.
“It happened in a moment and we took it for granted I think. Dubai Exiles chairman Mike Wolff came up to me and said how incredible an achievement it was, and it’s when people like that, who we have the biggest of rivalries with, come up and say what a massive achievement it is, you realise that it really is some achievement.
“I’m sure it will start to sink in the next few weeks but we’re really chuffed with our achievements.”
There was plenty more to celebrate yesterday as trophies were given out to an array of rugby talent from around the UAE. There were 13 categories in all, while the lack of an event to celebrate last year’s brilliance also resulted in the 2015/16 awards also being handed out.
Quins were also among the other awards with former first team player Mike Ballard’s Mike Ballard Foundation Committee taking home the Volunteer of the Season award.
Al Ain Amblers’ stalwart Manu Vilsoni, meanwhile, took home arguably the day’s most popular accolade as he collected the Neil Palmer Award – established in memory of the ex-Arabian Knights chairman and founder, who died in February 2015 – which was presented by Neil’s widow, Louise.
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.”