Dubai Hurricanes retained their West Asia Trophy title but not without being given an almighty scare by Dubai Eagles, who again proved how far they’ve come in their debut campaign as they battled to a 31-22 defeat at The Sevens.
In a series of close games with Canes this season, the nine-point defeat was the smallest margin in the three clashes between the sides this term. Canes won both West Asia Premiership clashes 28-12 and 36-23 and it might have been a different story in the final, but for a length of the field try scored by Mike Wernham’s men with 10 minutes left after Eagles fly-half Sean Carey had narrowly missed a kick at goal that would have given his side the lead.
Eagles have lost three games to Canes by a total margin of 95-57. Wernham praised Carey and Co and admitted Canes underestimated the debutants before kick-off.
“Fair play to Eagles, they’ve come on a lot and have improved enormously over the season,” said the Canes coach.
“We were confident going into the game and thought we were going to win comfortably. That didn’t happen and all credit to Eagles. It was that period 10 minutes into the second half where we thought the job was done and we got a bit lazy.”
Canes roared into a 14-point lead following three tries at the break, but they let their guard down as Eagles stormed back to within a few points in the second half – before the breakaway score.
“The game was the story of the season really,” added Wernham.
“We got back in it with a try after Eagles got an early lead. We blew them away with three tries then. But our structure didn’t work for us, we conceded 12 points for them to bring themselves right back into it, before we had a bit too much for them in the end.
“It’s always good to finish the season with some silverware, albeit it we didn’t really want to be in this final. We had some honest words at the end about next season but that’s for another time. It’s pleasing to get a trophy and good to see the back of a long hard season.”
Despite another agonisingly close defeat, Eagles captain Conor Coakley was left immensely happy at the final whistle.
“I’m very proud of the boys,” said the Irishman, who foresees a bright future for UAE rugby’s newest team.
“To see how far we’ve come since last September, it’s amazing. And it’s the same core group of players the whole way through the season. We’re going to get to the top soon.”
The 47-25 scoreline reads like a convincing win, but in truth it was anything but that as a nervous home side edged home only in the final 10 minutes after a vibrant start from Louie Tonkin’s Red Wall was overcome by a battling Exiles performance that almost yielded an unlikely victory.
Jacques Benade’s men were 14-3 behind early on but rallied back as the frightening power of their pack combined with their experience clashed with Bahrain’s free-flowing rugby, leaving the home side hanging on to a precarious lead in the second half.
Behind all game, Exiles got back to 26-25 at the hour mark following Gio Fourie’s second try as the final produced an epic contest befitting the occasion.
Bahrain kept their composure though and eventually ran in three late tries to suck the life out of Exiles and give the final scoreline a flattering look.
Missing a host of regular stars due to injuries, suspension, teachers away on school holidays and visa issues blocking several players from featuring, kick-off in Saar was delayed by an hour as Exiles endured a postponed flight from Dubai.
They were then late to the ground as they were left stranded at the airport on the other side and that seemed to contribute to their poor start as they fell behind early.
The home side – roared on by a vociferous crowed – scoring after just three minutes, Number 8 Eliot Behan touching down to give his side the perfect start.
Ross Preedy – who had a faultless game, failing to miss a single kick at goal – converted, the Welshman eventually finishing with a 22-point haul to lead his side to victory.
Durandt Gerber got on the board with an early penalty but otherwise had a surprisingly poor night in front of goal as he left 11 points out on the field including three missed penalties.
Rumbling prop Davis Tui rolled over to give the hosts a 14-3 lead as Tonkin’s troops threatened to run away with it.
But Exiles showed what they are made of with Gerber diving over to reduce the arrears, youngster Rory Arthur – playing as a makeshift centre – sending the South African over.
Preedy potted a long range penalty and then another after Tui was sin-binned for a shoulder charge, with Gerber making it 20-13 but failing to close the gap further with two penalty misses.
Toby Borrow was then sent to the bin for a high tackle but Exiles could not capitalise as Preedy sent them in 23-13 ahead at the break.
In a commanding position, it was nevertheless Exiles who came out firing at the start of the second half, livewire hooker Fourie – playing at the unusual position of flanker – powered over in the corner to reduce Bahrain’s lead to five.
Preedy made it 26-18 but Exiles were in the ascendancy and a massive cross kick from Gerber caused havoc in the home defence and Arthur did well to make life difficult for full-back Olly Luke. He was penalised for holding on and seconds later Fourie was over again, Gerber converting to make it a one-point game.
Suddenly the home crowd felt uneasy with the next 14 minutes passing by with neither side able to seize an opportunity to add to the scoresheet.
The longer the game went on you felt Exiles’ experience would prove key, but Tonkin’s side suddenly found another gear and Behan popped through a gap to score and give Bahrain some breathing space.
It was a body blow to the visitors and they visibly crumbled. Rhys Fitzgerald finished off a fine run through midfield by Tommy Booth and Tui then tore through late on to add insult to injury.
Perfect Preedy potted every chance that came his way as Bahrain celebrated a first home final in a decade with victory, Tonkin leading the club to a first piece of silverware since winning the Arabian Gulf Premiership in 2010.
Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam will give an added pep to Munster as they bid to reach the last four of the European Champions Cup this weekend.
Two-time champions Munster, having lost just once as hosts in the quarter-finals, welcome three-time winners Toulon to Thomond Park on Saturday.
Ahead of the game, we take a look at six to watch out for.
Munster’s most important player.
Makes everything tick for Johann van Graan’s side; from his box kicking, crisp passing, decision-making and to the way he marshalled his pack around ruck time.
In the post-Paul O’Connell era, Munster are still searching for on-field leadership and – aside from Peter O’Mahony – Murray has shown he can fill some of that void with his unselfish decision-making and ability to act as a ninth forward with his physicality and voracious work rate ensuring team-mates follow his lead.
His ability to snipe is invaluable, touching down for a try against Racing in the group stages, as well as initiating breaks that led to scoring chances during other matches.
One of the stand-out stars in the Top 14 this season, Ashton will be central to how Toulon perform at Thomond Park.
The former England international has been in scintillating form since arriving at Stade Mayol during the summer, scoring 21 tries this term alone – thus equalling Napolioni Nalaga’s record back in 2008-09.
The 31-year-old was instrumental last weekend, scoring a hat-trick against Clermont in a commanding 49-0 win – his second treble of the season.
If Toulon can get the ball out wide at pace, then it will be difficult to stop Ashton’s speed and power from close range.
A real filip for Munster to have the 28-year-old available for this fixture.
The Cork man brushed off a hamstring injury and will provide the firepower from deep as the Reds aim to dispatch the European giants on their home patch.
Although he may not be involved in the international set-up – partly due to his decision to sign for Racing 92 next season – Zebo is still an instrumental presence.
At 6′ 2”, he possesses pace, power, good defence and reliability under the high ball, and can act as an option for full-back and wing.
Initially regarded as the natural successor to Conrad Smith, the former All Black soon fell down the pecking order and joined Toulon last summer.
The 25-year-old is a direct and powerful runner and will be looking to attack the relitavely inexperienced Sammy Arnold and Rory Scannell at every opportunity.
With the destructive Mathieu Bastareaud on his inside, Toulon have two rocks capable of causing damage with and without the ball.
Although Ma No’nu starts in this game – Fekitoa will be instrumental when introduced.
A totemic presence for any side.
The Munster skipper keeps the pack well-organised and is the tipping point between winning and losing the forward battle.
Shows up all over the pitch and is an outstanding line-out option. With nearly 50 Ireland caps to his name, he is the likely successor to the captaincy when Rory Best retires.
The former World Player of the Year nominee has been in swackbuckling form this campaign, playing key roles in recent wins over La Rochelle, Agen and Toulon.
His huge physicality is a menace to any opposition and – coupled with his workrate – he is an outstanding footballer with a high skill level.
If Munster can stop the influential No8’s dominance at the breakdown, then they will have a great chance of progressing to the last four.
After three seasons in the south of France, the 31-year-old will return to the Stormers at the end of the season where he is being tipped for the South African captaincy.