Kandy require a bonus point win at home to Bahrain next week if they are to be the first non-UAE team to lift the Western Clubs Champions League after an entertaining 29-29 draw with Abu Dhabi Harlequins in Sri Lanka.
It could have been victory for Sean Wijesinghe’s side after Lavanga Perera dived over for a try in the final minute but Arshad Jamaldeen’s touchline conversion struck an upright to leave the sides level.
It means Quins are in the driving seat to retain the title they won last year, but Kandy can join them on eight points with a try-scoring bonus point win at home to visiting Bahrain next Friday.
It is a position Kandy coach Wijesinghe thought was not possible for his side.
“I’m looking forward to the next game and we have a good chance to win and with it the title, which would be the first time,” said the Kandy coach.
“It would be a great thing for the club and country as we have never done this before. I think it will be a good game and with a better crowd too as people think we have a chance and will start believing in us. I don’t think they ever thought we would do this well.”
Kandy trailed throughout the game, down 29-17 at one point near the end, but Wijesinghe was proud of his squad – who featured five schoolboys and were depleted by a number of senior players away with the national team.
“I was happy with our debutants, especially the schoolboys we had playing,” added Wijesinghe.
“Out of our 23-man squad, 15 were on the bench last year so it was good to give them game time. They showed heart and guts to go up against a bigger side. I’m happy but we have a lot to improve on.
“Quins had a great start. Out boys took a lot of time to settle down. But a try and a penalty gave us a bit of confidence and after that we started playing our natural game.
“We gave Quins a few easy tries though and we have to look into that and see what part of our systems didn’t work well. I’m happy with the result but we have to work on our systems.”
Mike McFarlane’s visitors scored first straight from kick-off in Nittawela when Kandy made a mess of collecting the high ball. Eventually a scrum was awarded five metres out and scrum-half Andrew Semple fed fly-half Joe Teasdale who went over the whitewash to score.
Semple potted the extras and then a pentalty to make it 10-0 before Thilina Wijesinghe reduced the gap with a three-pointer.
Anurudda Wilwara got Kandy back in touch with a try in the left corner and the scores were tied up when Wijesinghe converted impressively.
Captain Ben Bolger finished off a forwards move just before the break to re-establish Quins’ lead – Semple converting to make it 17-10 to Quins at the break.
A superb run from Wilwara early in the second half drew the hosts level again – stepping three defenders on his way to the line, with Wijesinghe making no mistake from the tee.
Two quick tries though for Quins put them in control. Former Abu Dhabi Saracens man Sean Stevens finished off an excellent move with Semple’s conversion making it 24-17 and it was soon 29-17 when full-back Jona Marshall exploited a gap to dive over at the left corner – Semple was just wide with his kick.
A penalty try gave the hosts a glimmer of hope inside the final 10 minutes to leave them five points adrift. It was beyond 80 minutes when Perera dived over out wide in a final flourish, but Jamaldeen’s kick, although it had the distance, came back off the right post to leave Kandy content with a draw.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins will retain their Western Clubs Champions League trophy with victory against Kandy on Friday – but Mike McFarlane has described the game as simply “another stepping stone” towards the Gulf rugby season kick-off next week.
Quins won a thrilling contest 36-32 against Bahrain last Friday in the curtain-raiser for the Asia Rugby-organised tournament, but both teams must now travel to Sri Lanka as it is held in multiple countries for the first time.
Although McFarlane has bigger priorities, he is of course keen to retain a trophy that kick-started their unprecedented haul of silverware in 2016/17.
“It’s another stepping stone in our preparations for the season starting next week,” he said.
“However, the incentive of retaining the trophy is there, I’m not going to deny that. That aside, it’s another opportunity for players within a large squad to stake a claim for a starting jersey by performing well against a high quality outfit.
“We know they are dangerous with some large forwards and a back line that’s electric on the sevens circuit so no doubt they will look to play expansive rugby.
“All I can ask of the players is that we step up, put into practice the focuses we have looked at this week and then reflect on whether we have been clinical enough in achieving our targets.”
Kandy have featured in all three editions of the tournament so far, since they first entered along with Abu Dhabi Saracens, Doha and Kazakhstan’s Olymp in 2015.
Sean Wijesinghe’s side are heavily depleted by a raft of players away with the Sri Lanka national team busy preparing for the second leg of the Asia Sevens Series in South Korea next weekend, but he insists it’s a great chance for his youngsters to make their mark.
“We will not be playing 11 of our senior players due to the ongoing Asian Sevens Series, as well as a few players recovering from injuries,” Wijesinghe revealed.
“But it will be a great opportunity for the young boys to show their talents on a big stage. That will give the young boys a great opportunity to play some tough opponents. There’ll be six debutants, five of whom are school leavers who only finished their A Levels last week.
“We’ve had three weeks of training as our season is still eight weeks away.
“We played Quins last year and they are a very good side. I was told this year’s team is even better so we know what is in front of us, but I’m pretty sure our boys will adapt.”
Kandy have travelled to the UAE for both previous editions of the tournament and Wijesinghe said it is special for them to be able to bring the tournament to Sri Lanka.
“It is a great opportunity for Kandy Sports Club to host this tournament for the first time in Sri Lanka and we are really looking forward to it,” he said.
“We are grateful to be in this tournament for the third consecutive year. The first year we came runners-up and last year we didn’t do well, losing both games. But this year is so special for us as both games will be on our home pitch.”
For Quins fans not travelling with the team, the game will be streamed live on thepapare.com
The problems keep mounting for Abu Dhabi Saracens who are set to start the new season without a home and a head coach after Winston Cowie announced he has stepped down.
The New Zealander cited work and family commitments as the reason for relinquishing the role he only took up last summer.
A group of senior players are shouldering the burden in the wake of Cowie’s deicision – including director of rugby Stephen Hamilton, flanker Jonny Taylor, lock Phanta Quinsile and club captain Andy Baker.
It’s been a tough summer for Sarries – the UAE’s second youngest club after newly-formed Dubai Eagles having been established only in 2011 – having been ravaged of star players including former skipper and UAE behemoth Jaen Botes, who left for Dubai Exiles, while Craig Nutt, Murray Reason, Sean Stevens and Garth van Niekerk all defected to rivals Harlequins.
On top of that they were dealt a further blow at the beginning of August when Al Ghazal Golf Club was suddenly shut – leaving them, for now, without a home field for the 2017/18 season.
Chairman Jay Danielson has been stuck in the Emirates during the summer following passport issues surrounding the birth of his second child – although it’s probably a good job with plenty for him to do at the club too.
“Winnie has a lot of family and work commitments and he said managing those would not compatible with the level of effort required to be a full-time coach too,” said the Australian, who remains upbeat.
“Over last few months Winnie and I have had several chats. Coaching is not something you can half do and he was very honest about saying he didn’t want to do something half-a***d. We were very open and honest with each other and he will remain a loyal supporter of the club.”
The senior playing group will lead the team into the new West Asia and UAE Premiership seasons, set to begin with a trip to The Sevens to take on Dubai Hurricanes on September 22.
Pete Henderson, meanwhile, is in charge of the second team who will play in the third-tier Community League and open up against reigning champions Jebel Ali Dragons 3rds on the same day.
Hamilton and the now departed Nutt previously took on player-coach roles in 2015/16 following Ali Thompson’s departure but Danielson insists he wants a full-time coach in place before the end of the year.
“Coaches are not growing on trees here in the UAE, so I’m chatting to some people both locally and abroad,” he said.
“It’s certainly my aim to put in a coach as opposed to a player coach, although players are filling in the void among the senior playing group, and they are doing a good job of it too.”
Despite the upheaval and the fact he always seems to be putting out a fire, Danielson insists confidence is high going into the new campaign.
“We’re still positive, numbers are good at training, which is excellent,” added Danielson.
“There’s been a lot of players moving on, moving home, moving to Dubai, so it’s encouraging to see so many new faces.
“I was told there were 30 people at training on Monday and there haven’t really been those sorts of numbers on a Monday night at Saracens training in the last few years I’ve been there.
“We have the second team playing in the Community League team and some old boys have come out of the woodwork too, so we definitely have two full teams.
“We have a lot of international flair too, with a few new French guys showing up, we’ve got two Italians, which is great to see.
“There’s been a big recruitment drive and the guys have done a really good job. I think we lost seven front rowers – no other club even has seven front rowers.
“It’s been a challenge but the boys have stepped up. It will be a challenging season we know but we have Canes on September 22, Jebel Ali for the twos and we’ll have a few bus loads going down to Dubai for both games so we can’t wait.”