The latest installment of the Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Dubai Exiles rivalry provided another classic encounter, even on a night when the game was probably at the back of most people’s minds.
It’s the fiercest rivalry in modern-day UAE rugby, yet somehow the malevolent feelings died down rather than rose up just after the final whistle sounded, as both teams came together on the halfway line for a photo.
Quins’ 33-month unbeaten record lives on but someone who won’t was at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.
“This is going to Garth’s family,” someone shouted. And despite having just gone to war on the field, Quins and Exiles players smiled and wrapped arms around one another.
The Garth in question is Quins’ South African centre Garth van Niekerk, who flew home to Johannesburg just over a week ago after being told he has weeks to live.
The 28-year-old received the news he had advanced stage colon cancer around eight weeks ago.
Van Niekerk, a flight paramedic with Abu Dhabi Aviation Search and Rescue (SAR), last played for Quins in their 36-32 Western Clubs Champions League win over Bahrain on September 8. He’d undergone tests but still played, earning the man of the match award, before being told the devastating news that it had spread to his liver and lungs the following day.
Despite having only moved to Quins in the summer from city rivals Saracens, the club said he’d made an instant impact.
“He’d had a massive impact since arriving. He was liked straight away,” said Quins coach Mike McFarlane.
“When things like this happen you realise there’s more important things than rugby, but at the same time playing a game and winning the way we did is the best way to honour him,” said Quins prop Craig Nutt, who knew Van Niekerk better than most having played with him at Sarries for nearly three years.
“He was always a competitive rugby player and he would have thrived being on the field today. He’s a magnificent man and that win’s for him.”
Van Niekerk had been in the UAE since early 2015, winning Sarries’ Player of the Season accolade that year. After receiving the news his parents, sister and brother-in-law had been visiting him in the UAE and accompanied him home around 10 days ago.
Despite the simmering nature of the rivaly between Exiles and Quins, the real ethos of rugby shone through as the entire Exiles side wore pink socks as a show of support for their hosts and Van Niekerk.
“We’re here to play rugby but we’re all mates,” added McFarlane.
“You saw Exiles wearing pink socks today and that just shows what UAE rugby is all about. When Canes came here they jumped in to help us too. It’s the same with Mikey Ballard, the rugby community does come out and support each other and it’s a great place to be.”
Several of the Exiles players know Van Niekerk well having also played with him at Sarries, including compatriots Jaen Botes, Lehan Koekemoer, Gio Fourie and Thinus Steyn.
And even though fly-half Durandt Gerber doesn’t know him well, he revealed everyone at the club wanted to show their support for their fellow player.
“It shows what the game of rugby is about. I don’t know him personally but when I heard about it, my heart felt for him because he’s a fellow rugby player,” said fellow South African Gerber.
“It just goes to show you never know when your last game is. He went to Bahrain and then a week later you can’t play rugby anymore. Rugby builds families and friendship and you have to enjoy it as much as you can for as long as you can.
“I don’t know him but I’ve played against him, and Jaen, Thinus and Kookies are all good mates. They told us the news last week so we wanted to do something. We got the socks and we’ll raffle them off for the boys and whatever money we get we’ll get it over to his family or the charity.”
Despite the terrible news underpinning the fixture, both sides put on a show befitting of the rivalry between the two, a game and result that would have pleased Van Niekerk immensely.
The hosts fell behind to an early Steyn score but led 19-12 at the break, thanks in large part to the flawless kicking of fly-half Luke Stevenson – who was 100 per cent from the tee.
Quins hit back after going behind with Nutt’s converted try leveling the scores before Stevenson took over.
Botes powered over for Exiles’ second score before the interval and scrum-half Carel Thomas darted over for number three just after the restart and Gerber’s conversion squared it at 19-19.
In a see-saw second half, Stevenson and Gerber exchanged penalties, Gerber’s second putting Exiles back in the lead at 25-22. Rapid Quins winger Barry Dwyer showed lightning reactions to snipe over from close range after a tip tackle on Stevenson, with the UAE international’s conversion sending Quins 29-25 ahead.
And the proud home record was kept in-tact when Exiles centre James Crossley knocked on in the final seconds, despite having a two man overlap.
Simon Zebo was omitted from the Irish squad for the upcoming Autumn internationals, just three days after Munster announced the winger-cum-fullback would be leaving the club at the end of the season.
The 27-year-old is expected to sign a lucrative deal at Racing 92, and with Ireland’s policy for not selecting overseas-based players, it is now unlikely he will feature at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
In light of Zebo’s omission, it presents a number of rising and in-form stars with an opportunity to step up and stake a claim for a spot in Joe Schmidt’s squad.
Although the likes of Rob and David Kearney and Keith Earls are already established stars who can play in the back three, here’s a look at five players we expect to shine in the build-up to the World Cup.
Who do you think deserves a chance in Schmidt’s team?
IRELAND CAPS: 4
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 2 tries in four matches
One of the most exciting names in Joe Schmidt’s squad, Carbery has been a totemic presence since his elevation to the Leinster starting 15 last season.
Made his first Irish cap when replacing Johnny Sexton with 22 minutes to go against the All Blacks last November, and has looked a class act since.
The New Zealand-born player is also an option at out-half, which makes his presence at 15 against the Springboks a little risky, especially with Ireland’s lack of options at 10 at present.
At 21, Carbery has buckets of potential, and hasn’t looked out of place at full-back for Leinster in Rob Kearney’s absence.
IRELAND CAPS: 2
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 4 tries in four matches
The emerging Ulsterman made a tonic start to his Ireland career in June and looks set for a starting berth in November.
The 21-year-old has been in scintillating form this season for Les Kiss’ side, scoring five tries in six games.
He was also the stand-out performer in recent wins over Connacht and Wasps, capping off both performances with superb tries.
At 6’5, he possesses pace, power, good defence and reliability under the high ball, and can act as an option for full-back, centre and wing.
On form he should be granted his place in the 22, although it is unlikely the Lisburn man will be presented with a starting place against South Africa. He should get the nod for Fiji or Argentina.
IRELAND CAPS: 3
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 1 try in seven matches
The Munster man has been primarily used on the wing during his time at Thomond Park, but is a rock solid presence at full-back.
One of the best in the business under the high ball, the 26-year-old has pace to burn, solid tackling ability, good positioning and is a lethal finisher.
Although he is ruled out for the Springboks clash due to a red card against Connacht, the Dublin man should be selected in the match day squads for Fiji and Argentina.
If Schmidt has one eye on the World Cup then he needs to give the industrious winger chances to continue developing his skills on the international stage.
IRELAND CAPS: 0
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 2 tries in five matches
Was unlucky not to be selected for Ireland’s summer tour after a stunning Pro 12 campaign last season.
The Munsterman is a towering presence at wing or fullback and has a penchant for scoring tries, with two already this season.
The 24-year-old may be uncapped but is starting to show signs of his class the longer he is in the professional game.
His voracious work-rate has makes him a key inclusion to any squad.
IRELAND CAPS: 6
PRO 14 STATS 2017/18: 3 tries in five matches
Produced a sensational performance against Munster on Friday to lay down a marker after his latest Irish snub.
The 26-year-old has electric pace, coupled with strong offloading capabilities and is a reliable option if Schmidt is short on back three players.
If an injury occurs over the next few weeks, except the Galway native to be called up.
He’s too good not to get another chance.
It’s been a whirlwind year for Ben Ryan since guiding Fiji to an historic rugby sevens gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics last summer.
Three acres of land, a Companion of the Order of Fiji and his face printed on a limited edition currency were just three of the gifts presented to the Englishman following the islanders’ extraordinary Olympic success.
Regarded as one of the most in-demand coaches in sport after three golden years with Fiji, everyone wants to know one thing – how did he create a successful culture that led a small island to the top of sevens rugby?
But for now, life as a mega coach has been put on hold as he mentors CEOs in America, consults with NBA teams and rubs shoulders with some of the best paid sports stars in the world.
“If there are two things I’ve toned doing what I’ve really enjoyed, the first is Sevens Rugby. It’s that feeling of playing a tactical game of chess at tournaments, where the team weaves its way through to the final stages and you have injuries and suspensions. I love that,” Ryan told Sport360 exclusively.
“The second side is creating a positive cultural environment for athletes and players to perform to the best of their ability and to create a psychologically safe environment.
“I’ve been going in to do MOP with lots of organisations and teams to look at how they are running things and where I think they can improve and where I think they can look to get a better environment, and often these solutions don’t include spending money.”
He added: “It’s to do with how they are looking after their players and managing their coaches, having relationships and communicating with players. I really find that fascinating.”
Away from the red carpet events, the gala dinners, the pitch sessions and ambassador roles, the Wimbledon-born man has a book planned for May and is the star of a Hollywood movie on the sensational Fijian rags-to-riches story.
It may be a different route for the 46-year-old to pursue but sport continues to enthuse his mind and this can be reflected in the demand for his services worldwide.
It’s easy to see how his sparkling presence is well valued by some of the top business and sports people in the world, but after experiencing all these new pastures away from sevens, has it changed his perspective on the game?
“We look at some of the values we hold in rugby around team-ship and the behaviour to coaches and each other,” the 46-year-old said.
“Rugby is in a very good place compared to other sports on some of those standards, and then you see other things that are happening in other sports that you think ‘ok that system is much better than rugby’.”
“Every experience I go to I get more experiences all the time. You go into a football club, then a basketball club or a governing body, and you can use these experiences in other places and make them better, but I’m really fortunate that I’m allowed this access.”
Since stepping down as head coach of the islanders after the Olympics, Ryan has been carrying out various consultancy opportunities with World Rugby, HSBC, France 7s and the New York Knicks.
He has been inundated with offers from all over the globe – turning down the Edinburgh head coach job – and recently using his magical touch to steer France in a more positive direction ahead of the new HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series season.
It’s a significant boost to see Ryan still involved in sevens, and the sport is perhaps robbed without his influence on a full-time basis.
However, he does have prospects to return to coaching in the future, but is yet to confirm when that will be.
“I’ve yet to have the bug to go back into one job in a new team, but rugby is number one,” he said.
“I think somewhere down the line I’d love a season with an American professional franchise like the NBA or the NFL. I think that would be class.
“I think I see where my rugby knowledge and running a programme would be of value to them.
“I’m not teaching someone about how hit a three pointer or throw a 40 yard pass. I’m talking about the other things that go into training a team on and off the field.”
With the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series kicking off in Dubai in five weeks, South Africa look the team to beat after an impressive campaign that saw them crowned champions after five wins from ten tournaments.
“South Africa have lost a few of their key players but will get them back from Super Rugby at different points of the season,” said Ryan.
“I can them not having the same consistent success last year but I also think they will be able to win a second successive series.”
“The biggest mover I think will be New Zealand. They’ve got a new coach and they’ve changed their training base. They have also brought in some new returning players and exciting young players. They NZRU have put various measures in place to achieve success.
“I think both those teams will be fighting it out at the end of the season.”
Former Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan returned to the UAE in his role as an HSBC ambassador where he coached youngsters from Hamdan Bin Rashed School Dubai.