Love will be in the air on Friday as the curtain comes down on the UAE rugby season, with famed foes Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins battling each other for the final major piece of silverware of the 2017/18 campaign.
Talk of romance seems strange when discussing these two sides. They have been the best of enemies and the standout two sides in UAE rugby over the last four years.
But both teams will have key players involved in Friday’s UAE Premiership final who celebrated their engagements this week. Exiles lock Stephen Ferguson proposed to partner Deena on holiday in Hong Kong, while Quins scrum-half Andrew Semple got engaged to his fiancee last week.
More intriguing is that the pair are old schoolfriends from back home in Derry, Northern Ireland.
Victory on Friday will provide one of them with a double celebration. But when it comes to the game, Ferguson insists there will be no love lost.
“Getting engaged and hopefully winning the Premiership in the same week, that would be unreal,” said Ferguson.
“But there’s a lot of work to do first. Against Quins you have to play for 80 minutes, they have players all over the park that can change the pace of a game in a flash.
“And the rivalry between us is second to none, so the whole spectacle will be amazing. Hopefully a bit more amazing for the Exiles boys.”
Hatred as opposed to romance has burned brightly between the two teams – with 13 of the last 18 major trophies over those four seasons won by either Quins (10) or Exiles (3).
They say love conquers all, but whoever said that has never been on the sidelines at a Quins v Exiles game.
Ferguson proposed to Scottish partner Deena, whose relationship he referred to as a “Barasti love story”, while away on a trip to watch the Hong Kong Sevens at the weekend – proving you can love two things at once.
Built more like King Kong, Ferguson is a giant of a man with a giant heart, who can’t wait to come up against – and beat – his best mate on Friday.
Ferguson, who was forced to miss Exiles’ 47-25 defeat to Bahrain in the West Asia Cup final at the end of March because of an injured shoulder, said: “I’m fully fit and available and can’t wait to play. My best mate Sempy in the Quins team just got engaged last week too, so it’s a double header for me and him. But hopefully it’ll only be a double celebration for me.”
Romantic Ferguson, who only arrives back in the UAE on Thursday night, on the eve of the final, added: “It’s not really ideal being away in Hong Kong all week before the game, but it’s something that had been planned for months.
“I can’t wait to get back out there with the brothers. It was so frustrating not going to Bahrain, we waited until the last minute and I had to pull out the morning of the game. So I’m chomping at the bit to get out there and give a performance because I feel like I let the lads down.”
Exiles won the Dubai Sevens title for the first time in 11 years in December, but missed out on a possible hat-trick following defeat to Bahrain. Victory on Friday would give them their second double in three seasons following their 2015/16 UAE Premiership and West Asia Championship titles.
For Quins, they relinquished their grip on three of their four major honours from 2016/17’s quintuple – Sevens, West Asia Premiership and Cup.
But victory on Friday would still see them finish this term with a treble of their own – they retained their Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title in pre-season and beat Exiles 28-25 last month to hoist the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup.
And despite a difficult campaign including scores of injuries, the influential Ben Bolger forced into retirement and a raft of departures, head coach Mike McFarlane is proud of his players.
“We have battled hard and it has tested our culture, which has shone through. I’m really impressed with the attitude and application of all the players at the club,” he said.
“We’ve won two trophies so far. If we win this we will win three out of six trophies and we lost the West Asia Premiership by one point with a result nobody saw coming. To stand here and be able to say that with all the injuries and issues we’ve faced is nothing short of miraculous.”
Despite their troubles, that culture McFarlane talks of concerns a club that have been serial champions in recent years and simply know how to win.
He added: “Our second team have stepped up en masse regularly while still managing to get into the Top 5 in the UAE Conference. Our BaaBaas (third team) have made the final of the Community League while our fourth team, Sandstorm, finished mid-table in their first season. This is an incredible achievement.
“It’s a grand final. The boys know how to win. They are buzzing for it and have prepped meticulously for a very good Exiles team on Friday. It’s a great rivalry on the biggest stage so no doubt there will be fireworks.”
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper believes this year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco could ignite interest in the sport across America, raising the possibility of a US bid for the 15-a-side World Cup in 2027.
Wednesday marks the 100-day countdown to the seventh edition of rugby’s four-yearly sevens spectacular, which will be staged at San Francisco’s iconic AT&T Park baseball stadium from July 20-22.
Gosper told AFP in an interview that ticket sales for the three-day event had already reached the 60,000 level, and World Rugby is anticipating a sell-out for the opening day.
The tournament is being staged as rugby enjoys a surge in popularity in the United States, buoyed by the success of the men’s sevens team and greater exposure of the sport than ever before.
NBC television will broadcast the World Cup Sevens, and in recent years has begun live broadcasts of English Premiership rugby and the Six Nations.
Recent research commissioned by World Rugby found there were an estimated 33 million rugby fans in the US who described themselves as either very interested or interested in the sport.
Gosper believes July’s tournament in California can be a “game-changer” for rugby in the country.
“It’s something that can ignite the sport in the US,” he said. “We know there is latent support for rugby in the United States.
“So seeing rugby almost normalised in an American context, in an iconic American stadium, with free-to-air coverage on NBC television, promoted by NBC, I think will be quite a game-changer for the sport.
“We’re realistic. It’s only three days. And you can’t change the world in three days. But you can light something and create a detonator for greater things later. It will give people more confidence to host more events in America.”
That something could conceivably be a bid for rugby’s greatest tournament, the World Cup.
The next edition of the tournament will take place in Japan in 2019, with France hosting the 2023 event.
Gosper believes that an American bid for 2027 is not outside the realms of possibility.
“There is a general belief across the people running the sport that America’s time will come, probably sooner rather than later,” Gosper said.
“We know that we’ve got a World Cup in Japan in 2019, we’re going to France in 2023. Is 2027 a possibility? I don’t think that’s out of the question.
“They’ll have to go some to get there. But there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be candidates in 2027.”
A successful World Cup in Japan next year – the first time the tournament has been staged outside of its traditional markets – could give a powerful jolt of momentum for an American bid, Gosper said.
“A big success in a country like Japan would be noticed by other non-traditional markets,” Gosper said. “It would be hugely inspiring for other tier-two markets, like the United States, to attempt a similar undertaking.”
Meanwhile, Gosper said the format used at this year’s World Cup Sevens – a straight knockout competition featuring 24 teams which was designed with an American audience in mind – could eventually be introduced across World Rugby’s HSBC Sevens circuit.
“Each game counts, which we know is something more interesting for the Americans,” Gosper said. “I wouldn’t call it a trial but it’s likely that this format moves into the general HSBC Sevens Series in the next cycle.
“We think it’s a really attractive format which was kind of designed for the American public. The more we look at it we think it could have merit in our general series.”
London club Quins said Kingston, promoted from head coach to director of rugby in April 2016, would leave the Twickenham Stoop by “mutual agreement”.
Quins are currently ninth in the 12-team Premiership and suffered an embarrassing 35-5 loss at home to bottom club London Irish last weekend.
“It is with a very heavy heart that I will be leaving Harlequins at the end of this season,” said Kingston in a club statement.
“I have been at Harlequins for 17 years in differing roles and have grown to love the club almost as if it were part of my family.
“The obstacles this season have been well-documented, and no one has been more disappointed by our results than me.
Media statement: John Kingston to leave Harlequins at end of season https://t.co/eGz0tjH6Zf
— Harlequins 🃏 (@Harlequins) April 9, 2018
“In my opinion, this is the strongest squad ever assembled in all my time at Harlequins, and this leaves the club in a sound position to go forward.
“Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see the squad achieve in the near future what I deeply believe it can – winning trophies.”
Quins have won just seven of their 19 league games so far this season and they made a pool-stage exit from the European Champions Cup, finishing last in a group that also included Wasps, Ulster and La Rochelle.
“This season has been hugely frustrating and disappointing for everyone at Harlequins, and for none more so than John,” said Harlequins’ chief executive, Dave Ellis.
“With considerable regret, we have agreed that John should step down as director of rugby.
“John has much to be proud of during his time at The Stoop, most notably when, while head coach, the team won the Aviva Premiership, the Amlin (European) Challenge Cup and the LV= (Anglo-Welsh) Cup, as well as reaching two Heineken (European) Cup quarter-finals.
“The club will not make any comment about the appointment of a new director of rugby until we are ready to do so. The process to recruit someone new who can take Harlequins to the very top of English and European rugby is in hand.”
Some ropy decision-making at the top of Harlequins. Recent extension means Kingston pay-off will cost them a small fortune. And what/who now? Options limited, & next appointment couldn’t be more critical for player retention.— Alastair Eykyn (@alastaireykyn) April 9, 2018