Sharjah Wanderers will get the chance to celebrate their 40th anniversary in style by trying to lift a second UAE Conference title in three seasons on Friday.
Wanderers won one of the most epic finals Gulf rugby has ever produced two years ago when they came from being 16 points adrift to slay Jebel Ali Dragons with a try beyond the 80th minute from Dave Bracken to claim a memorable 27-26 triumph.
After a barren defence of their Conference title in 2016/17, Sharjah have surged back into the final in 2017/18, where they take on Dubai Tigers at Dubai Sports City on Friday.
Sharjah chairman Shane Breen said: “We’re back in the final again which is fantastic, especially as it’s our 40th anniversary and the boys couldn’t be more excited. To top off the anniversary year with a trophy would be great, but there’s 80 minutes of rugby to get through first.”
Wanderers, one of the oldest clubs in the Gulf, celebrated their landmark 40th year at the start of the season.
But in Tigers – formerly Heartbeat Tigers – they will come up against one of the UAE’s newest clubs, formed only in 2014 by Shane Thornton.
After winning the Conference’s Bottom 5 final 12 months ago, Tigers have surged to the top of the second tier’s standings this season.
Judging by the 41 points both teams earned in a tightly-packed top of the table though – Tigers finished first by way of a better head to head – Friday’s final should be closely fought.
And despite having the years of experience and a recent trophy to their name, Sharjah are taking nothing for granted.
“Tigers and ourselves finished up first and second in the league so it’s going to be a great competitive game on Friday and we know they’ll be highly motivated to win,” said Breen, 31, whose family is originally from Norhtern Ireland but he has spent his entire life in the UAE.
“Tigers have proved this season they’re a serious team and have put in some big results. We got one over them in the first round and they beat us the last time we played so we’re pretty evenly matched.”
Although they have fared far better the season following the one immediately after their title triumph, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Sharjah.
Breen added: “This season has tested the character of our squad in many ways. With lots of injuries, boys have had to step in and we’ve pulled off some great wins which has helped galvanise the team. We’re back to full strength this weekend and looking forward to taking to the field.”
Tigers and Wanderers kick-off at 15:00 at Dubai Sports City on Friday.
Especially as they both appeared in the last two versions of the Top 6 final – with agonising defeat suffered by each.
Amblers lost a heartbreaker last year, going down 31-26 in extra-time to Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds, Kent Watene their hero after they had scored an equalising try right at the death following Epeli Davetawalu’s red card.
Similar woe befell Dragons 2nds two years earlier as they led for almost the entire game against Sharjah Wanderers before a try beyond 80 minutes saw them lose 27-26.
Dragons finished top of the bottom half of the pile in the UAE Conference, posting 39 points to earn a final shot, with Amblers eight points behind.
And now that they’re here, Dragons are determined to finish the job and win some silverware.
“We’ve been on a good run the past few weeks, all the boys are looking forward to the final and playing against a quality outfit in Al Ain, who were only narrowly beaten last year in the Top 6 final,” said Dragons skipper Jamie Lynch.
“It’s a one-off game with everything to play for. We’re certainly not looking at ourselves as favorites, Al Ain have a strong reputation for turning it on this time of the year so we will need to be at our best for the full 80 minutes.”
As he has done many times before, Amblers director of rugby Rocco De Bruyn is stepping in to take charge of the side from the Garden City for the final, with head coach Sean Emmett away in Australia.
He admits it’s been a bit of a slog this year, having appeared in the glamour Conference showpiece 12 months ago. But he is determined to finish on a high.
“It’s been a hard season with lots of new players and untimely injuries, especially to key positions,” said the South African.
“It was a slow start trying to find the correct combinations and game plan according to our strengths.
“We’re looking forward to Friday’s final, hoping that we will play against a legitimate second team from Dragons. If so, I think we will have a hard, yet entertaining, game.
“Our head coach, Sean Emmett, is currently in Australia so I had to step in (again) for the finals.
“Luckily the men have a good coaching team in Jakes Terblanche , Leon Bell and George Taunga that are a great help.
“Rugby is a funny game and there are no guarantees of an easy game or win, as we have seen lately in Super Rugby and the Six Nations, but I have faith in the boys and believe that we can be victorious on Friday.”
Two of the UAE’s biggest clubs met at the same stage last year, on the inaugural UAE Rugby Grand Finals day at Dubai Sports City, with Dragons triumphing 22-11.
It will be Dragons’ third straight visit to the final – in the third installment of the Community League showpiece.
They were beaten by Beaver Nomads in the final of the inaugural Community League season two years ago, with Neil ‘Dutchy’ Verweij leading them to glory 12 months ago.
He has since moved on to a team manager with the senior Dragons’ side, replaced by Malachy Mulhall.
Both teams have lost once this season, with Mulhall and his Dragons seeking revenge for a 37-5 trouncing at the hands of Quins in February.
“We left everything on the bus that day but we got over it. They were on fire and every side has a bad day,” said Dragons’ coach.
“Maybe it was a good thing as we were worrying too much about going the season unbeaten up to that point. We’re focused and still hurting from being beaten heavily in February. They’ve had two teams in the Community League this season so well done to them.
“They’re good and we know we need a game to pull off the double. It will be a game between two very even teams.”
Mulhall praised the assistance the players have had from Dragons director of rugby and first team head coach Henry Paul, as well as senior forwards coach Andy Buist.
#UAERF Grand Finals @DxbSportsCity This Friday, free entry!— UAE Rugby Federation (@uaerugby) 11 April 2018
Live Streaming on our Facebook Page: https://t.co/4eunAhtCb7
Stay Tuned! #GRANDFINALS #UAERF@EdenParkME @goldsgym_uae @emirates @dubaidutyfree1 @DubaiAirports @DubaiAirportsAr pic.twitter.com/G3v0PY5MTB
He also has faith in a squad that hasn’t altered too much from the one that earned silverware last season.
He added: “We’ve got some good players in this squad. Out of team, we have nine from last year. Another three or four of them are injured and some dropped out with family commitments around Christmas. It’s still the same core.”
Dragons captain Mike Hayel knows all the pressure is on his side as the defending champions, but he and his teammates are relishing the challenge ahead.
“It’s a huge game for us. Going in as defending champions is tough, there’s more pressure on us but the attitude in the three’s at the moment is fantastic,” said the skipper.
“As it’s the social league it’s difficult to get numbers down at training but everyone is on the same page and we all know the task in hand. We’re getting more guys at training than the ones and twos.”
Despite the fact it may be UAE rugby’s third tier, Hayel said the burning intensity of a Dragons/Quins rivalry is just as hot.
“Quins are coming to get revenge for last season’s final but we’re also out for blood as they were the only team to beat us in the league,” he added.
“They ruined our unbeaten season so that’s going to add some spice to this final! And any game at any level between us and the Quins is always huge.
“They’re a great club and its going to be the hardest game of the season but if we stick to our structure that’s been installed throughout the club by HP (Paul), we’ll walk away with the trophy.”
Quins’ only defeat came in November, a 38-21 loss at RAK Rugby. They are coached by former first team player Mike Ballard, who last appeared for the Zayed Sport City side in the Gulf Top 6 (now West Asia Premiership) final in April 2014 – suffering a spinal injury that has left him wheelchair-bound.
The American returned home for treatment but has since returned to the UAE to work as well as taking up a coaching position at a club where he is hugely respected.
And his biggest headache seems to be who to leave out of his final 15.
“Selection was a nightmare, with nearly 40 lads down to training on Monday,” said the American.
“Things have been ultra competitive within the club this year. We were able to put a third and a fourth team on the field week in and week out throughout the season. We’ve had lads competing for spots non-stop since the season kicked off in September.
“Friday is a massive day for the club having our junior section on in the morning, and our first team and third team playing in their respective finals with everyone supporting each other.
“We see ourselves as the Quins development side, and we’re fortunate to have a solid core of leaders who have been able to help coach up some of our young lads, and guys new to the game.”