Dubai Exiles look to keep unlikely treble dream alive in West Asia Cup final at Bahrain

Matt Jones 28/03/2018
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Dubai Exiles are aiming for the West Asia Cup (Gerhard Botes).

Dubai Exiles head to the cauldron atmosphere of Bahrain on Friday to try and complete the second stage of what would be an unlikely treble, knowing that once again they are the underdogs.

Jacques Benade’s men have been here before this season though. They were second favourites heading to West Asia champions Jebel Ali Dragons a week ago for the West Asia Cup semi-final, but prevailed in a tense contest in which both sides had a man sent off.

They have been underdogs the whole 2017/18 season; first scrapping to repair their damaged reputation following a woeful 2016/17 campaign and then battling back after a promising start was eroded as Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Bahrain and Dragons surged ahead in the Premiership.

They will again be the unfancied side in Saar. An attempt to overturn Jaen Botes’ two yellow cards against Dragons failed, while they already have a few injuries and additional players missing as they’re teachers on school holidays.

But no-one at the club is using these issues to make any excuses, with players and coaches adamant they are heading west to add the West Asia Cup to their Dubai Sevens title.

“We had Tuesday off to recover. The game against Dragons was a belter, but a sore one,” joked Northern Irish lock Stephen Ferguson.

“We’re so happy to come out on the right side of the result but the job’s only half done. Anyone going to Bahrain is an underdog.

“The place is electric to play at. We are all just excited to put on a show for their awesome crowd. And hope we can deliver.

“We love to prove people wrong and we love to prove to ourselves that on our day we can deliver. It’ll be a great game and if you can’t be there, get on Facebook and watch it. One not to be missed.”

South African head coach Benade encapsulated the Exiles approach to the game by defiantly stating: “We are missing a few players due to teacher holidays and injuries, but we are going there to win the final.

“We lost both games to Bahrain this season but we also know that we could have won both. It’s a big ask of the boys but we are always keen for a challenge and proving people wrong.”

Friday will be a special day for the hosts and their head coach Louie Tonkin.

The Welshman has revolutionised the club since coming in nearly two years ago, transforming a middling team into championship contenders.

They were one of four teams fiercely contesting the Premiership title. But having come up short in the big games during his tenure, Bahrain delivered in their semi-final by toppling reigning Cup champions Quins in Abu Dhabi a week ago.

They lost a heartbreaker to Quins in this final 12 months ago, after a storming first half was undone by their opponents’ brilliance in the second. And Tonkin is reminding his team that while they have the advantage of a home final, their lack of experiencing success gives Exiles an edge.

“We’re absolutely delighted to be hosting a final. A really exciting day for the club. It’s been the best part of 10 years since the club hosted anything like this and it’s going to be a fantastic occasion for all involved,” said Tonkin.

“We were ecstatic after the win last week but the focus this week has been bringing ourselves back down to earth and the fact we haven’t won anything yet.

“The boys have worked so hard all season to create this opportunity, to bring home silverware in front of their home crowd.

“But we know Exiles are a good side. Physical pack, great 10, big centres. They’re a real threat to anyone and any team that can go to Dragons twice in a season and win is a dangerous team.

“So we know, despite the results we’ve had against them (Bahrain beat Exiles 18-15 and 19-11 in the Premiership this season), it’s going to be a real battle and one we’re ready for.”

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Dubai Eagles aim to fly high against Dubai Hurricanes in West Asia Trophy final

Matt Jones 28/03/2018
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Regardless of the result when they take on Dubai Hurricanes in the West Asia Trophy final on Friday, Josh Ives insists Dubai Eagles will be flying high at the final whistle.

It’s been a testing debut campaign for Eagles, established just months before the 2017/18 campaign got underway. Andrew O’Driscoll’s men have won just two games all season – both against Abu Dhabi Saracens.

The second of those was a commanding 53-7 triumph in the Trophy semi-final a week ago, setting up a chance to have another tussle with Hurricanes and an upportunity to end the season on a high.

Games between the pair have been competitive this season, with Canes triumphing 28-12 in October and 36-23 in the two West Asia Premiership encounters.

And Ives insists all the pressure is on the reigning Trophy champions.

“This was always our target this season, to be in this situation in this game,” said the Eagles scrum-half.

“As far as the campaign goes I’m hugely proud of the lads and what they’ve achieved. Regardless of the result I’ll be sleeping happy.

“The game will be tight, if we can get a handle on that scrum and stop those big lads up front just a little I believe we have patterns and individuals that can nick the game.

“We have nothing to lose this game, we’ll be chucking absolutely everything at them. All the pressure is on them which is quite nice. Expect to see a lot of happy Eagles at the final whistle, regardless of the scoresheet.”

For Canes, it is a place captain Dave Knight readily admits they do not want to be in. Although they are defending champions, it is the West Asia Cup and Premiership he wants to be competing for.

He and his teammates have seen the Premiership fiercely contested this season between Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain, and he has been looking on with envy.

“Unfortunately, it’s not the trophy we wanted to be in but now we are in it we want to retain it,” said the UAE international.

“It’s a bit of a nonsense trophy considering the league standings are already done but we’ve got to take it for what it is, another game and the chance to put some gloss on an otherwise underwhelming season.”

With games having been close between the sides this term and the fact Eagles will be buoyed by the chance to end a fledgling campaign with silverware, Knight knows Canes should win, but is warning against complacency.

“They’ll throw absolutely everything at us as winning would be a massively successful season for them,” he added.

“Our lads have to not be complacent and match their desire from the off. If we do that I think we’ll be alright and have too much for them to handle. If we don’t then it will be a dog fight for 80 minutes.”

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Rieko Ioane and Jacob Stockdale lead our best under-21 rugby players

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Every season, there are always a few youngsters who burst onto the scene and send the fans’ pulses racing.

By normal standards, however, this season has seen more than its fair share of young players starring for their teams, with All Blacks star Rieko Ioane leading a talented crop of under-21 stars shining on the big stage.

RIEKO IOANE

Ioane has progressed into one of the most prodigious talents in the world since making his All Blacks debut 16 months ago.

Possessing pace, skill and power, the Auckland native – with 11 tries in 13 matches – should have won World Player of the Year ahead of Beauden Barrett in November on the back of some virtuous displays in 2017.

Still only 21, there are few weaknesses evident in his game so far, with solid defending and deft footwork at the centre of his excellent skilset.

The towering Ioane is so effective that he has put Julian Savea out of a place in the All Blacks team – a player who has scored 46 tries in 53 matches.

It’s enough to get any rugby fan excited with former All Black Dougie Howlett hailing the lethal winger, saying: “He can move like Christian Cullen, he has the strength of a Jonah [Lomu], and he can pass and play the ball like a Tana Umaga”.

DAMIAN WILLEMSE

The young South African is yet to be capped by the Springboks but has showed signs during the opening weeks of the Super Rugby season that he is ready for the grand stage.

At just 19, the Stormers out-half proves a constant threat with ball in hand and has flawless goal kicking abilities that can be the tipping point between winning and losing.

He has good speed, nimble foot work and can step would-be defenders at close quarters – all of which can put teams on the back foot.

Out of high school just two years, Willemse looks comfortable at senior level and is contnuing to show maturity to perform in such a central position against quality oppositon at Super Rugby level.

Recent sterling displays against the Highlanders and the Blues could secure him a place in Rassie Erasmus’ squad to face England in June.

JORDAN UELESE

Hands down the best hooker in Australia at the moment.

With just two Wallabies caps to his name, the 21-year-old has catapulted himself into being first choice in Michael Cheika’s side within six months of making his Test debut.

The Wallabies may still be going through a transitional period at No2 after the retirement of Stephen Moore and the unavailability of Tatafu Polota-Nau, but with Uelese in sparkling form for the Rebels, he has the chance to lead the nation back among the game’s elite.

Strong in the scrum and accurate in the line-out, the Rebels star has a bright future ahead and could be a key man against Ireland in June.

JACOB STOCKDALE

The 21-year-old was one of the leading lights in Joe Schmidt’s side during the Six Nations, scoring a record seven tries in five matches – and picking up the Six Nations Player of the Tournament.

Stockdale, who only made his Test debut last summer, claimed try doubles in victories over Italy, Wales and Scotland, then added another during the Grand Slam-clinching triumph against England at Twickenham on March 17.

At 6’3, the Lisburn man possesses gas, power, good defence and reliability under the high ball, and can act as an option for full-back.

Although it is still early in his professional career, he is sure to be an inspirational presence for Ulster and Ireland for years to come.

Expect him to light up Ireland’s World Cup campaign in 2019.

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