Denis Hurley helps guide Dubai Exiles into West Asia Cup final on debut, announces UAE departure

Matt Jones 24/03/2018
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Denis Hurley is heading back home to Ireland after nine months with Dubai Exiles.

When you’re looking to see out a tense game with both opponents and teammates losing their heads in the midst of a heated battle, it must be nice to call upon a former Munster stalwart and once-capped Ireland international from the bench.

That was the situation Dubai Exiles head coach Jacques Benade found himself in as he summoned defence coach and Heineken Cup winner Denis Hurley in the final 10 minutes on Friday.

And former Munster full-back, wing and centre Hurley played a pivotal role in helping steer Exiles to a 31-20 win over hosts Jebel Ali Dragons in their West Asia Cup semi-final.

His intuitive cross-field kick late on not only relieved pressure on Exiles, who were lying deep inside their own territory, but found touch within the Dragons 22. Indeed, it was almost caught by teammate Tomas Sackmann for a game-clinching score.

Hurley said of his cameo: “I spotted Tom Sackmann on the wing and he’s bigger than me. I wanted him to get up there and get on the end of it to make it look good. I’m not the biggest kicker in the world so I was quite pleased with that.”

Having been thrown into the fray after both sides had seen a player sent off – Exiles will appeal Jaen Botes’ red card ahead of next Friday’s final against Bahrain – Hurley helped Exiles over the line in a brutally physical encounter in which both sets of players gave it their absolute all.

Dragons' Niko Volavola on the charge against Exiles in the sides' West Asia Cup semi-final.

Dragons’ Niko Volavola on the charge against Exiles in the sides’ West Asia Cup semi-final.

The 33-year-old joined Exiles as their defensive coach last June but revealed he had also registered himself as a player, admitting he had been itching to play throughout the campaign.

“At my age I can still play. It’s in case anyone pulls out injured, I’m always at the games, so why not have it as an option,” said the man who featured in the final of Munster’s 16-13 Heineken Cup triumph over Toulouse in 2008.

“It was good for me to give back to the club who helped get me set up out here. I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have a go out there today. I’ve been itching a few times on the sidelines to get out there so it was nice to help out.”

Hurley, who had previously featured this season for the club’s second team in the UAE Conference, but was making his first team bow, added: “It was hard-hitting and obviously at this point of the season there’s a lot of knocks and injuries. Every team has them.

“Players are getting through 60 minutes and that’s probably as much as they can manage. The bench starts becoming important and with players becoming injured long term it’s up to the likes of me to come in. An ex-professional on the bench isn’t a bad option I guess.

“I played for the twos but my fitness levels aren’t very high.”

He may well have been looking forward to playing a part in Bahrain next Friday as Exiles go in search of the second part of a potential treble – they claimed the Gulf Men’s League title against Dragons at the Dubai Sevens in December and play Abu Dhabi Harlequins next month in the UAE Premiership final.

But Hurley won’t even get to be on the sidelines in Saar. The Irishman, who gained his sole cap for the Men in Green against the USA in May 2009, is heading home to the Emerald Isle after nine months in the Emirates.

“Hopefully they can do the job without me there. I’m not going to be around unfortunately,” Hurley revealed post match.

“I’m moving back to Ireland. It’s a family decision. It just hasn’t worked out for us out here. I’ve really enjoyed the club scene and the guys at the Exiles. It’s been a great time to be part of a rugby club in a different part of the world. Feeling part of something off the field abroad has been great.

“The family hasn’t really settled and the job situation was tough. We made a decision as a family that we’d be better off back home, a bit more support for the little one as well with both of us working, that’s the main thing.

“I’ve been working with a start-up sports academy which is still in the early days of getting up and running. There’s been bumps along the road and it hasn’t been a fluid transition.”

Denis Hurley in Heineken Cup action for Munster.

Denis Hurley in Heineken Cup action for Munster.

Despite heading home, moving to the UAE and joining Exiles is a chance Hurley is thrilled he took and something he will aim to take with him in whatever he decides to do in the future.

“I was at the end of my career and had been at one club for such a long time, I just felt I needed a change of scenery, to step out of my own world and tight circles back home,” Hurley, who made 166 appearances for Munster, scoring 16 tries and winning two Pro12 titles in 2009 and 2011, said.

“This was an opportunity and we took a jump at it. I’ve not lost anything coming out here, I’ve gained a lot. A lot of good people have become good friends, I’ve met a lot of good people and I know I’ll always have a place to stay over here if I come out.”

Hurley has no plans yet, adding: “I’ve sown a few seeds, made a few contacts. I’ll take my time. The wife has a bit of work which gives me a bit of time to suss out what I want to do. We’ll see what happens.”

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Bahrain continue resurgence under Louie Tonkin as they reach West Asia Cup final

Matt Jones 24/03/2018
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Bahrain celebrate beating Quins in Abu Dhabi.

Louie Tonkin admitted Bahrain reached the West Asia Cup final “the hard way” but to host a first cross border Gulf final in over a decade is a special moment for the club.

Having enjoyed their heyday in the 1980s, with the club’s name regularly etched on the winners’ trophies of the Arabian Gulf League, Arabian Gulf Cup and Dubai Sevens competitions, success has been much harder to come by for Bahrain in the last decade.

With the rise of neighbours Doha and a burgeoning club rugby scene emerging in the UAE, Bahrain have endured a prolonged trophy drought since winning the Arabian Gulf Premiership in 2010.

But that could all change next weekend following an impressive 26-21 victory against Abu Dhabi Harlequins on Friday, a result that gifts Tonkin’s side a second consecutive West Asia Cup final appearance and, more importantly, sees them host Dubai Exiles next Friday.

“I think it’s the first West Asia Cup final in Bahrain in 10 years and we’re really excited about that opportunity,” said Tonkin, who has been the driving force behind the club’s resurgence since being appointed director of rugby in July 2016.

After finishing third in the West Asia Premiership behind runners-up Quins and champions Jebel Ali Dragons earlier this month, Bahrain were given the arduous task of going to Zayed Sports City to take on the side that beat them 31-25 in a thrilling West Asia Cup final 12 months ago – an early sign that Bahrain were on the cusp of something special under Tonkin.

Bahrain's rise under coach Louie Tonkin has been something to behold.

Bahrain’s rise under coach Louie Tonkin has been something to behold.

Their chances of a repeat appearance seemed even slimmer when they went behind 21-6 in the UAE capital to Mike McFarlane’s reigning champions – but a stunning second half fightback saw Bahrain score 20 unanswered points to set up a showdown on home soil with Exiles in a week’s time.

“I don’t think anyone would have predicted us hosting a home final,” added Tonkin.

“I think people could have predicted Exiles beating Dragons because they beat them at home earlier this season. I heard they’d won five minutes before the end of our game and we were up two points at the time.

“It then turned into a reality and when I broke the news to the players at the final whistle, it was a really great moment. Those moments are really special. The boys were elated.”

It was a first triumph over Quins under Tonkin’s reign following five defeats and a 15-15 draw in the league last September. And while talent has rarely been an issue under the former Cardiff University head coach’s tenure, Tonkin said his players finally discovered some belief under the ZSC lights on Friday.

“I’m hugely proud of the result. The boys worked really hard all season long and played some tough games recently,” added Tonkin.

“The Dragons loss (defeated by Quins 36-32 on March 9) was a big blow to us and our goal is now to win the West Asia Cup. We knew we had to do it the hard way after losing to Dragons, going to Quins away, and win. It’s worked out fantastically well for us.”

Of the hard-fought win, Tonkin added: “We know how big a challenge it was for us. Quins have had a difficult year this year. I was talking to Mike before the game about the injuries they’ve had and loss of so many players, but they’ve got a brilliant squad.

“They had a number of guys out but were still able to field a strong team, which is a measure of a good squad and management.

“It was a fantastic game, really high intensity. They dominated the first half with some really good play. We had a crazy high penalty count but the tide turned in the second half in our favour.

“We converted some chances. We were down 21-6 at one stage but we scored 20 unanswered points and the boys showed a real belief, they were fantastic.

“All season long we’ve been talking about this team believing in themselves. When they do you can see it in them. There were some heroic performances. Our back row battled for 80 minutes, the boys off the bench made a real contribution. Ross Preedy had a great game at 10.”

It’s been a troublesome season for Quins and their coach McFarlane, who has somehow kept his team competitive despite losing a raft of players before and throughout the campaign.

Tonkin gives his team a pep talk.

Tonkin gives his team a pep talk.

After winning five trophies a year ago, Quins won their first of 2017/18 earlier this month when they beat Exiles to lift the UAE Premiership Cup. They will face Exiles again in the Premiership final next month, which brings the curtain down on the domestic season, and McFarlane paid tribute to Bahrain and counterpart Tonkin.

“It was a great game,” said the Englishman.

“We were up at half time and extended the lead but with the depth in quality they have we were always going struggle in the second half with so many first team players missing.

“Massive congrats to Louie and the lads. They’re a cracking bunch of boys and I wish them all the luck for the final.”

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Premiership action returns after grueling Six Nations campaign

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Premiership action returns after Six Nations-induced hiatus.

England’s international players will make a mass return to domestic action this weekend following the rigours of a punishing NatWest 6 Nations campaign.

Only four of the England match-day 23 involved against Ireland at Twickenham last Saturday are absent when the Aviva Premiership takes centre stage after a three-week break.

Anthony Watson, Owen Farrell and George Kruis are all injured, while England captain Dylan Hartley misses Northampton’s clash against Newcastle at St James’ Park on Saturday because of illness.

Seventeen players on Six Nations duty last weekend start for their clubs, with two others – props Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler – among the substitutes for Saracens and Harlequins respectively.

While much focus will be on the England contingent, attention also surrounds Wales wing George North’s appearance for Northampton.

He has been named to start against the Falcons following the internal disciplinary action taken by the Saints against him for missing a training session earlier this month.

A crowd approaching 30,000 is likely for play-off hopefuls Newcastle’s appearance at the home of Newcastle United.

“I have been there for Newcastle United games, Rugby World Cup and Rugby league Magic Weekend, and it’s just an incredible venue,” Falcons Rugby director Dean Richards said.

“I am sure our guys will show a great focus and really rise to the challenge.

“They’ve done it many times already this season, and it is an enormously exciting time to be involved with the club right now.”

Saracens are also on different territory, with a 57,000 sell-out confirmed for a London Stadium appointment with Harlequins as the European champions start with England trio Richard Wigglesworth, Jamie George and Maro Itoje.

Saracens Rugby director Mark McCall said: “It feels as though the first seven months of the season has had its challenges.

“It’s been tough and we have had a few things to contend with, but we’ve got to the home straight and we are in pretty good shape, as it were. It is time now to get excited about what is ahead.”

Premiership relegation favourites London Irish will go into battle against Madejski Stadium visitors Gloucester on Saturday under their new coaching team of Declan Kidney and Les Kiss, and just 48 hours after Rugby director Nick Kennedy departed the club.

And Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann is wary as his play-off hopefuls tackle a team currently 12 points adrift of 11th-placed Worcester – the Warriors visit Sale Sharks on Saturday – with just five league games left.

“Obviously I think they will be a side who will be hungry and desperate,” Ackermann said. “They’ve had a change in coaching staff, and sometimes that can bring new energy and excitement. It’s going to be a big test for us.”

Sunday’s Premiership action, meanwhile, sees Leicester hoping to keep themselves in the play-off mix when they tackle Wasps at Welford Road.

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