Ross Samson revels in "best day I've had" as Jebel Ali Dragons return to prominence and win West Asia Premiership

Matt Jones 10/03/2018
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Bad times and good: Ross Samson has seen it all with Dragons.

Ross Samson is one of few Jebel Ali Dragons players who can remember the glory days – the club won back-to-back trebles of UAE, Gulf and Dubai Sevens titles in 2012/13 and 2013/14.

Yet even though the ex-Edinburgh and London Irish scrum-half arrived at the club in the midst of that second season, he admits he never felt fully part of the success as he missed both the Sevens and Gulf Top 6 finals through injury.

But after leading Dragons to the West Asia Premiership title on Friday, the Dragons captain called it “the best day I’ve had at Dragons”.

“I came in 2013 when we won the last treble. I was injured for the Sevens though and injured myself in the warm-up for the Gulf Top 6 final so I never really felt I could call myself a proper league winner,” said the Scottish scrum-half after an epic finale to an epic season – Dragons beat Bahrain 36-32 in Saar via the bonus point required to stop Abu Dhabi Harlequins retaining their crown, winning the league by a mere point.

“There’s a part of you that doesn’t feel part of it if you don’t play the final. But this is the best day I’ve had at Dragons.

“The best two moments this season were beating Quins in the Sevens semis and getting that monkey off our back. The second was yesterday when Niko (Volavola) scored the fifth try. We knew that was it.”

Dragons are slayers: Jebel Ali celebrate after victory in Bahrain.

Dragons are slayers: Jebel Ali celebrate after victory in Bahrain.

Since that debut season following his arrival in Dubai, it’s been quite a different story for Dragons and Samson.

Players and coaches departed and success was replaced by stagnation. As Quins, fledglings Abu Dhabi Saracens and sleeping giants Dubai Exiles rose to prominence, Dragons slipped into obscurity.

The following two campaigns in 2014/15 and 2015/16 were transitional ones. They reached the UAE Premiership final last term but were beaten by Quins as a famous quintuple was toasted. A first piece of silverware in 44 months was within reach as they reached the Sevens final in December, but they were eclipsed by a first Gulf Men’s League title for Exiles in 11 years.

But just three months later and finally they have another trophy to put in the club cabinet. And Samson admits Dragons’ players have grown closer having risen from the ashes.

“The year after that (last treble) a lot of boys went off and got married and had kids and we were at sixes and sevens for a few years,” said Samson, 30.

“Bruce (Pendrey) came in and coached us (in 2015/16), I helped out but didn’t have a clue what I was doing. We had a few good players coming in like Matt Henry and Jonathan Hamilton and since then we’ve built and built.

“There’s been a few players join every season and we’ve now got a nucleus that’s seen all the rubbish and been at the bottom scrapping. We’ve got better and better and HP (Henry Paul) has come in and that’s been a massive positive influence and he introduced the structure.

“We’ve got J Mac and Buisty (assistant coaches Jonny MacDonald and Andy Buist) coaching and HP has been away the last few weeks.

“They’ve stepped up and we’ve been playing out of our skins. We’ve got 20 or 30 honest lads who want to win the league and we’ve done it.”

Coming into the Premiership’s final weekend, Dragons were top but knew they were second favourites to win the title, having to go to Bahrain – previously unbeaten at home in 14 months under Louie Tonkin.

Realistically only a bonus point win would suffice. Quins finished their campaign at second-bottom Dubai Eagles where a maximum victory was expected.

Positive impact: Henry Paul joined Dragons in 2016.

Positive impact: Henry Paul joined Dragons in 2016.

If Dragons had won without a bonus point the two teams would have finished level on points, but the title would have stayed in the UAE capital with Quins possessing a superior points for and difference record.

“There was no real option for us,” said Samson, whose side raced into a 36-11 lead in the second half – with tries for Volavola, Ryno Fourie, Jonathan Hamilton, James Love and skipper Samson – before the hosts surged back to score three tries and leave Dragons sweating.

“We had to go there and get a bonus point otherwise Quins were going to win the league. Half-time we were 11-10 down. We knew we had to score three more tries which we did in 10-15 minutes and then got one more so we were 36-11 up with 20 minutes to go.

“We let it slip a little bit. When they were about to score the last try I was screaming at the guys to let them score, shouting “We’ve won, we’ve won”. I was crying on the pitch with joy.”

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Why Perry Baker is the best player in the World Rugby Sevens

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After scoring 24 tries in 18 matches this season, Perry Baker (aka ‘Speed Stick’) continues to be one of the most devastating finishers on the Sevens circuit.

In November, the US star picked up the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year award after scoring 57 tries during a memorable 2016/17 season.

In what was a tumultuous year for the 31-year-old Florida native, many believed England’s Danny Norton – another star operating at an immense level – deserved the accolade after a season in which he broke the Rugby Sevens try scoring record.

But if there was any doubt about who the stand-out player is, it was nullified this weekend in Las Vegas as Baker crossed the line for eight tries and looked virtually unmarkable during America’s successful campaign.

At 6’1 and 82kg, Baker possesses frightening pace and power. Against England in the quarter-finals he scored three first-half tries, with his first five strides taking him past two players at a time. It’s scary to think a winger competing at this level can make it look so easy.

Not only can he beat opponents and score tries, but he is also solid in defence and demonstrated this when holding up a series of attacks against England and Fiji, at points in the game when the US were under pressure.

In most teams – amateur and professional – a lethal winger can sometimes be a weak tackler, but Baker’s freakish ability to be strong in attack and defence highlights his status as the best player in Sevens rugby.

The Blitzboks’ Seabelo Senatla – now playing Super Rugby with the Stormers – is another outstanding figure on the Sevens circuit, and Luke Morgan is having the year of his life for Wales – but in Baker, the Eagles possess a naturally gifted all-round player.

When the Eagles Sevens stepped out against Argentina in the final of the Las Vegas 7s on Sunday, it was always going to be an interesting encounter – with the hosts bidding for a second ever win on the circuit and Argentina featuring in just their second final.

But Mike Friday’s side looked more influential with ball in hand, and Baker crossed the line for one of the four tries as they sealed a first win on the circuit since May 2015 at the London Sevens.

Sevens has always taken Baker’s preference, but with US rugby rising, could 2018 be the year we see the most devastating finisher in the game star for the 15s side?

It may be too early to get excited, but Baker’s superiority in Las Vegas shows a player with the complete array of skills required to thrive at any format of the game.

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Springboks veteran Rassie Erasmus named new South Africa rugby coach

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Erasmus played in 36 Tests for the Springboks.

Rassie Erasmus has been named as the new South Africa coach.

Former Munster Rugby director Erasmus, who played in 36 Tests for the Springboks, succeeds Allister Coetzee.

Coetzee was dismissed last month following a run of poor results, and 45-year-old Erasmus will combine coaching duties with his role as SA Rugby’s director of Rugby.

Erasmus will head up the Springboks’ management team until the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, SA Rugby announced.

“The Springbok team is our flagship brand, and the on-field performances have a direct impact on the business of SA Rugby,” chief executive Jurie Roux told the organisation’s official website.

“Following a very detailed review process of the 2017 season, I believe that we have managed to assemble a strong and experienced Springbok coaching and management staff.

“We are looking forward to see improved performances this season.”

Erasmus’ first Test at the helm will be against Wales in Washington DC on June 2, which is followed by a three-Test home series against England.

“It is a huge task to coach the Springboks, and I am very privileged,” Erasmus said.

“I really believe we have the players and the Rugby IP (intellectual property) to turn things around and to mount a serious challenge at next year’s Rugby World Cup.

“We have 18 Tests and just under 600 days until Japan 2019, and although a lot of planning has already gone into our Rugby World Cup preparation, it is very important that we prepare thoroughly for the matches against Wales and England in June.”

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