Two red cards, five tries and a ferocious fight between two heavyweights – this was UAE club rugby at its finest.
Dubai Exiles emerged from the Dragons’ lair having slain Jebel Ali 31-20 to set up an encounter with Bahrain in next week’s West Asia Cup final after the two teams considered the underdog triumphed in Friday’s semi-finals.
Both teams thundered into each other from the off at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence with the brute force on both teams making for a feisty game which boiled over on several occasions, including in the closing minutes when Exiles’ UAE international Jaen Botes and Dragons’ flying Fijian Saki Naisau were red carded following a violent altercation.
Amid a second half where hotheads ruled the day, Durandt Gerber’s ice cold temperament and near faultless goal-kicking saw Exiles prevail and reach the final, having finished fourth in the West Asia Premiership, behind champions Dragons.
Exiles are lauded for their impressive physicality and it was on display when they opened the scoring against the run of play after four minutes. Dragons had started brightly but conceded a penalty and after Gerber kicked for the corner, former Dragons hooker Gio Fourie crashed over against his old side following the lineout drive.
Dragons roared right back and thought they were level three minutes later when a delightfully delayed Naisau pass sent Matt Richards over, but the try was called back for a forward pass.
It mattered little as Dragons did regain parity shortly after when James Love’s beautiful reverse pass sent Niko Volavola into space. The Fijian is a devastating talent and finished off in style, Love tying the scores.
Gerber and Love exchanged penalties as little ground was given by either side. Jacques Benade’s men did edge ahead at the break thanks to their gigantic pack. Another kick to the corner, another lineout drive. Botes this time the grateful recipient at the back as he powered over as Exiles led 17-10.
He went from saint to sinner just four minutes after the restart though when he was sent to the sin bin for a tip tackle. The raucous home crowd sensed a chance to get back in the game and they duly were, just a minute later.
Exiles initially thought they had escaped the danger when they stole a lineout and cleared their lines. But Volavola kicked and retrieved his own punt to send Richards scurrying through to score against his old club, with Love again leveling things up.
Despite being a man down, Exiles dug deep and showed their mettle when they took the lead for a third time with Botes in the bin. This time it was their excellent running rugby which yielded a score.
The excellent Justin Walsh, Rory Arnold, James Crossley and Matt Mills all made ground as the visitors meandered into Dragons’ territory. And just as the hosts thought they had stemmed the tide, Fourie found a gap and ploughed over for his second score.
Gerber missed a difficult conversion and then a penalty but potted his next shot at goal as errors began to creep into Dragons’ game. The gap was eight but Love bisected the uprights to leave his side trailing at 25-20 with 10 minutes remaining.
Then came the turning point. A swinging arm from a Dragons player on an Exiles opponent went unnoticed by the referee. A fired up Botes took matters into his own hands and pushed a player in blue to the ground, before being hit by a Naisau punch.
The Fijian was sent off while Botes followed after being shown a second yellow for retaliation.
Both sets of supporters were incensed but amid all the hostility, Gerber remained the coolest player on the pitch – keeping his nerve to add two more penalties as Exiles kept Dragons at bay, firing themselves into next week’s final, with a treble of West Asia Cup, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens very much in their thoughts.
It is now three wins in a row over Dragons for Exiles following triumph at the Sevens in December, a 35-15 WAP win earlier this year and now this result.
And they are a side who bring the best out of Exiles, said their head coach Benade.
“Dragons always bring the best out of us. They were favourites in the Sevens final and the two recent games in the league and today,” said the South African.
“The boys always want to play rugby. It’s the same against Quins. It doesn’t matter what players teams have out on the field, everyone will lift their games.
“They have a lot of good players, individual players who can create something from nothing and they’re playing a good brand of rugby, so to come here and win again, the boys were outstanding.”
Of the game, he added: “It had everything. Both teams wanted to win and both went out there from the start and got very physical. It’s a local derby and it’s a game, whether a friendly, league, semi-final or final, where both teams will always want to win.”
Dragons skipper Ross Samson was one of many players from both teams left wounded following a thrillingly physical encounter and the Scotsman had little complaint with the result.
“We made too many mistakes and they’re a quality team,” said the Dragons’ scrum-half.
“They’ve played better the last two times they’ve played us so we don’t have any issues getting beat by a better team on the day.
“We said before the game that if they get penalties they’ll kick to the corner and drive from the lineout and they did that and you can’t win a game if you keep giving penalties away. No gripes, get the feet up now and time for the off-season.”
As Exiles were edging home against Dragons, Bahrain turned over Premiership runners-up Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the UAE capital, winning by a similarly narrow margin of 26-21.
With another Six Nations campaign under the carpet, it’s time to look ahead to the Rugby World Cup next September.
With just 18 months to go until teams roll into Japan to compete for rugby’s ultimate prize, we take a look at the key players each of the Six Nations teams can build a side around to enjoy a successful campaign in Asia.
If England are primed for a World Cup assault next September, then Eddie Jones needs to bolster his back-row combination.
The Red Rose’s normally reliant back-row came under scrutiny during the Six Nations with Courtney Lawes and Nathan Hughes struggling to find form and Chris Robshaw industrious but lacking bite against Scotland and France.
In imminent Wasps signing Brad Shields (26), Sam Underhill (21) and Billy Vunipola (25), England have three players who possess a strong ball carrying threat and voracious tackling ability – and would be a menacing threat to opposition in Japan.
Judging by their successful Six Nations campaign, it looks difficult to pick a position where the Men in Green need to improve with such depth available in key positions.
The Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton axis may be the obvious key combination, but in Garry Ringrose (23) they possess a player of real quality who – alongside Robbie Henshaw in the centre – has the chance to light up Japan 2019.
Up front, Tadhg Furlong (25) hums with godliness – and his tireless work in the loose and fantastic scrummaging ability makes him the best No3 in world rugby.
Warren Gatland’s showed glimpses of what they are capable of during a tournament many believed Ireland and England would dominate.
A second place finish should boost optimism as the Dragons prepare for the summer tour Tests against Argentina and United States.
Centre Hadleigh Parkes (30) and out-half Rhys Patchell (24) should be the central figures looking to inspire Wales to a place in the penultimate stages of the competition.
Kiwi Parkes, in particular, showed he has the potential to be one of the best 12s in the world, with a series of solid showings in attack and defence. Could Japan be the time to cement this argument?
Aside from a disappointing defeat to Wales in round one, Gregor Townsend should look back on his Six Nations campaign with plenty of confidence as Scotland gear up for a crucial 18 month period run in to the World Cup.
Stuart Hogg is undoubtedly their inspirational attacking threat, but in Huw Jones (24), they have an equally influential figure at 13 who can be a real jewel in their prospects.
Although a seasoned name in the ranks, captain John Barclay (31) is the conductor of the orchestra and his tireless work at the breakdown will be crucial to the outcome of any forward battle on the big stage.
Their win-less campaign might be reflected upon with only a flicker of positivity – with a strong second half against Ireland and a solid performance against France.
Unearthing quality players like full-back Matteo Minozzi (21), out-half Tommaso Allan (24) and back-row Sebastian Negri (23) shows Conor O’Shea has instrumental figures to work with ahead of the World Cup.
Zebre star Minozzi – with four tries in the Six Nations – is one of the brightest stars in Italian rugby and can produce magic from any touch.
With another 13 Test matches before the World Cup, Jacques Brunel needs to start showing he has a clear game plan and the players to produce magic on the grand stage.
Back-rower Yacouba Camara (21) is certainly one who has the gear to make a difference in Japan. The Toulon man carries the most out of any of the forwards and is solid at the breakdown.
With Camille Lopez still sidelined with a broken leg, France will be looking towards the 28-year-old to lead the back-line when he returns to full fitness.
Teddy Thomas (23) – hands down the best winger in the country – should be reselected for the summer Tests and will looking to continue his try-scoring form.
Former England international Jeremy Guscott has called for a radical overhaul of substitutions in rugby – for the good of the game’s future.
Guscott, who was capped 65 times for England and eight times for the British & Irish Lions, wants to see the number of changes available to coaches cut to four to encourage teams to have better fitness levels and smarter tactics.
The Bath stalwart said: “For me rugby now needs a big change, and the biggest change we could make is going down to four or five substitutes, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to do that. It is the biggest change rugby could make and it would be unbelievable.”
Player welfare in the game has never been under the microscope as much as it is now, particularly given the size of players and impact in contact.
Guscott says that reducing the big, fresh players coming on against tired opponents would help limit injuries.
“There would be three of four fewer big units coming on who are going to smash into weaker people,” he said.
“It becomes more a game about fitness and how smart you are so you have to change tactics, and it becomes a game, again, for all shapes and sizes. Players would be smaller as they would have to get fitter and go for longer.”
The only area he would guarantee substitutions would be the front row – with just one other replacement allowed.
“All the front row would have to change, and I would then go for one other change. A back can go all the way through a game, you can’t tell me anyone from 9-15 can’t play for 80 minutes.
“I would do it next season. Get it done, it would be so exciting.”