Abu Dhabi Harlequins shared 68 points with Bahrain as Mike McFarlane’s men got their Western Clubs Champions League defence off to a winning start – just about.
Quins were 15-0 down inside 20 minutes before piling on 31 unanswered points to surge into the ascendancy – although the visitors’ own comeback saw them cross for three tries inside the final 10 minutes to ensure a tense ending of a thrilling spectacle Quins won 36-32.
The scoreline somewhat flattered Louie Tonkin’s visitors, who ended strongly as the hosts took their foot off the peddle.
Quins proved there is always another talented star ready to step into the limelight with this win – with Mike McFarlane’s men now travelling to Sri Lanka to take on Kandy next Friday.
Key players have departed Quins over the summer but the 2017/18 generation showed the Zayed Sports City men will still be the team to beat this season.
Craig Nutt proved what a valuable asset he will be as the powerful prop was part of a dominant Quins pack that bulldozed their way to victory.
So often slick operators in the back division, Quins have rarely been known to bully opposing forward departments in Gulf rugby, but scrum after scrum last night they pulverised their opponents.
There were key contributions off the bench from Courtney Raymond, Harry Skelton and Joe Teasdale, which new arrival Nutt says proves there is plenty of talent at the club.
“It’s nice to have a bench with an impact that we’ve got,” said the Welshman, who arrived from capital city rivals Saracens this summer.
“It’s a big squad and a big effort. We were training last Monday and had two sides playing against each other as well as 25 boys training behind the pitch, and then the thirds and fourths on a different field.
“It’s a great ethos and something all the boys are buying into. Hats off to everyone who’s trained over the summer.
“They’ve lost two centres and a flanker who let’s be honest were right up there with the best in the league. We’ve got big shoes to fill but it’s all about winning. It was said we might have a slow start but deep down we know we’ve trained hard all summer and are expecting to win.”
Bahrain coach Tonkin said there were plenty of positives to take but lamented a 40-minute period in the middle of the game where his side shipped 31 unanswered points.
“I’m gutted. The middle patch of the game we were really bad,” he said.
“We were dominant for the first 20 minutes. The drinks break killed our momentum and we imploded for 40 minutes. We thought it was conditioning to start off with but then we dominated the last 20 again so it wasn’t that.
“To concede 31 points in the middle 40 minutes is destroying and you can’t do that.”
Luke Stevenson passed on the first opportunity to open the scoring when he nudged a 40 metre penalty just wide, and after that it was Tonkin’s troops who took the game by the scruff of the neck.
After both teams threw away possession at least twice, Bahrain capitolised when skipper Adam Wallace cut a great line to sell his marker and he accelerated to the line for first blood.
They were almost in again following a bit of quick thinking at a lineout from hooker Lindsey Gibson, but his forward pass halted the move. Quins scrum-half Andrew Semple was sent to the bin for using foul language to the touch judge who he deemed had incorrectly allowed play to carry on when Gibson was not five metres from touch when receiving the ball.
It went from bad to worse when Bahrain did indeed score again. Ollie Luke’s fine cross-field kick bounced kindly for winger Greg Heath who beat Emosi Ratuvecanaua to the line with his searing pace.
That was the key for the hosts to kick into gear and they were in front 17-15 at half-time thanks to a 10-minute points frenzy. First they were awarded a penalty try when the referee had seen Bahrain collapse one too many scrums close to their own line.
Stevenson reduced the gap with a penalty and then finished off a bout of pressure with a try which leveled the scores – his conversion put his side ahead for the first time.
They started the second half just as they’d ended the first, scoring two tries to put themselves firmly in the driving seat.
First Barry Dwyer fed Tom Brown who went over in the corner, although the referee awarded a second penalty try for a reckless tackle. After more intense pressure lively substitute Joe Teasdale somehow touched down in the corner despite immense effort from Luke to force him out.
Stevenson was now in the groove and nailed a brilliant touchline conversion to take Quins into a commanding 31-15 lead.
Tonkin emptied his bench as Bahrain looked to mount a fightback – and Iwan Phillips began one with 10 minutes remaining when he fought through a couple of tackles to crash over in the corner to give his side hope at 31-20.
Quins seemingly dashed their hopes once and for all when Semple created space to dart over to make it a 16-point game.
But back came Bahrain with the try of the game. Phillips started it and Luke and Rob Bennett combined beautifully to send Wallace over for his second score to give the away side a consolatory score.
They were gifted another beyond 80 minutes when Quins failed to tap before kicking the ball out to end the game. Instead they rushed their own lineout and Elliot Behan stole it to touch down for a fifth Bahrain try.
Radley’s conversion dropped just short as a pulsating game reached its breathless crescendo.
Luke Stevenson feels Abu Dhabi Harlequins may take a bit of time to hit their stride this season but he thinks they still possess a squad capable of adding to the incredible five-trophy glut of 2016/17.
Quins claimed the holy trinity of Gulf rugby silverware by hoisting the West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership and Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens, while also adding the West Asia Cup and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League crowns.
Their historic haul all started with Champions League silverware 12 months ago. And even though fly-half Stevenson expects Quins to come under fire from the likes of a resurgent Dubai Exiles, Jebel Ali Dragons and tomorrow’s opening Champions League opponents Bahrain, he insists his team remain strong.
“We’ve got a good set of lads so hopefully we’ll go alright. I think a few other teams are looking really strong this year, so we’ll just see how we go,” said Stevenson with cautious optimism.
He has a right to be cautious. Not only was Quins’ incredible quintuple unprecedented, but their summer has been littered with financial issues off the field, while key trio Brian Geraghty, Willie Umu and Patrick Jenkinson have all departed to follow new paths.
Crafty centre Geraghty and all-action flanker Jenkinson were Quins’ two standout stars last term, while Stevenson knitted most of everything good the club did on the field together.
And with the majority of players only recently returning to the capital city following their summer breaks, Stevenson feels it might take a while for the Zayed Sports City men to get up to full speed.
He added: “The boys are looking good, we’ve got big numbers down at training but we’ve had the majority only get back in country in the last week or so, so we haven’t had much time together.
“There’s been a good core about over the summer but lads have just been coming back gradually, as I said we’ve only had a full set here the last week or so.
“I’m expecting Bahrain to be decent so we’ll see how it goes (tomorrow).”
The Champions League is essentially a pre-season warm-up and Quins coach Mike McFarlane, like counterpart Louie Tonkin, will be using it to test combinations and player fitness – but that will not mean glory is sacrificed.
“It’s great to be back and we’ve got tremendous numbers and competition for places across the club,” said an upbeat McFarlane.
“The games will be a fantastic opportunity for the players to gain minutes and practice putting our patterns and systems into play whilst players push to secure a jersey for the opening West Asia Premiership game.
“We will look at players playing in different positions and combinations whilst striving to perform at the highest possible level at this stage of the season.”
Louie Tonkin is aware his Bahrain side will be far from the finished article when the Gulf rugby season returns tomorrow, but he is nevertheless aiming to take an early opportunity to lay down a marker for 2017/18.
Bahrain visit Abu Dhabi Harlequins at Zayed Sports City tomorrow evening looking to dethrone Mike McFarlane’s men after they won the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title this time last year – a triumph that kick-started an unprecedented haul of five trophies in 2016/17.
Long term the aim of both clubs will be the West Asia Premiership which kicks off on September 22, but Tonkin insists they aren’t coming into the curtain-raiser to simply make up the numbers.
“We are going to be rotating the squad over the next few weeks and giving opportunities to payers who have worked hard all summer but we do want to try and win games,” said the Welshman.
“We know how good Quins are. We know they’ve lost some good players but they’ve also recruited some good ones as well. They’re always going to be a good side, well coached and well drilled, so we know it’s a huge challenge. And that’s something we’re hugely looking forward to.
“Obviously it’s preparation for the West Asia Premiership but we’ll focus on this tournament for the short term and getting as much out of it as we possibly can.”
Tonkin has been busy off the field during the summer strengthening both his playing and coaching squad.
He revealed Bahrain won’t be at top gear during the Champions League but his focus is more on monitoring how his squad improve on the specific areas his has targeted over the off-season.
“We’re really excited about this game. The squad have been training pretty intensely now for the last six weeks and we’re integrating the new players in,” added the 34-year-old.
“We’re perhaps not the finished article yet and I’m sure mistakes will be made but as long as we can see improvements in the areas where we have been working on in the summer we’ll be happy, and hopefully the result will look after itself.”