They already had a first Dubai Sevens title following an 11-year drought in the bag. But you felt it might still have been considered a disappointing season had Dubai Exiles not claimed a second major trophy in 2017/18.
It saw them put a foot in the final, but an inexperienced and patched-up squad decimated by injuries then had to head to Bahrain to win. It was a daunting task, one they manfully committed to and even looked likely to win, until they wilted in the final 10 minutes and Bahrain sauntered to a flattering 47-25 win.
So one final remaining, against their most hated rivals Abu Dhabi Harlequins – who have had a stranglehold on UAE rugby in the last two years and more.
But as Exiles capitulated in Bahrain three weeks ago, the UAE Premiership final seemed a step too far for an injury-ravaged Quins – barely recogniseable from last year’s quintuple champions.
It was a deserved win and brought Benade a second double in his third season at the helm.
“I’m delighted with the win,” said the South African.
“The players just played a great game, taking our chances really well. The forwards dominated up front in the contact area and set-pieces and with front foot ball, Du (Gerber, fly-half) controlled the game well at the back.
“It was a massive team effort in defence and I’m just so proud of the boys. A huge squad effort and the players must take all the credit.
“I really think we deserved some silverware in how we grew as a team during the season and I’m just so happy for the club and all the players involved in our senior squad.”
It was some effort from Exiles, who at one point this term looked as if they would run out of gas trying to keep pace with early-season pacesetters Quins, Bahrain and Dragons.
Benade’s boys began 2017/18 like they had a chip on their shoulder. After meekly surrendering their UAE and West Asia Premiership crowns last season, they flew out of the traps, posting 125 points in two seismic wins over Dubai Eagles and Dubai Hurricanes.
But then came three straight defeats to Dragons, Bahrain and Quins, and they began to run out of steam.
They were boosted by collecting the Gulf Men’s League title at the Sevens in December, halting Quin’s bid for a fourth successive crown. Then they won four on the bounce and six of their final seven Premiership games to roar right back into contention.
Chariman Mike Wolff still wishes the squad that took to the field against Quins had been the one to take on Bahrain, but he is content with his lot.
“I’m very happy with that win,” he said. “I confess, I do wish the Gods had allowed us to deploy that team to have played Bahrain. That would have been an unbelievable 80 minutes with that crowd, but two big trophies for the firsts, a plate for the twos, and runners-up in two other finals is a good position to be in at the end of the season.”
Jacques Benade led Exiles to the Premiership, as well as the West Asia Championship in his debut campaign in 2015/16. But the shine was taken off that in a below par second year as they meekly surrendered both titles, with Quins romping to a brilliant quintuple.
But this significant triumph at Dubai Sports City proved Exiles are back.
Quins had claimed the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup last month with a tense 28-25 triumph over Exiles, but Benade’s men stormed to a win in Friday’s final with a controlled performance – adding the trophy to their Dubai Sevens title to win a second double in three seasons.
They were in the ascendancy from the start, Namibian scrum-half Carel Thomas sniping over after taking a quick tap penalty.
Durandt Gerber converted and made it 10-0 with a penalty before Quins reduced the deficit with a try converted by Luke Stevenson.
Exiles kept their foot on Quins’ throat and their powerful pack forced Mike McFarlane’s men to concede a penalty try minutes later.
Jaen Botes was sent to the sin bin shortly after but Gerber extended the lead to 20-7. A big moment arrived just before the interval when McFarlane’s men were held up over the Exiles line, but when they were given a penalty for a high tackle, they were penalised for holding on after kicking for the corner and Exiles cleared their lines.
Botes returned but was replaced in the bin by Thomas early in the second period for a high tackle and Quins took full advantage as Barry Dwyer went over out wide – Stevenson missed a difficult conversion and the gap was now just eight.
But Quins were then reduced to 14 themselves and from there on out the men in black kept Quins at bay, thanks to an assured kicking performance from Gerber.
Gloss was added late on as first Kristian Stinson went over for a game-clinching score in his final Exiles appearance, before the brilliant Thomas chased Botes’ kick and forced a mistake from the full-back to dive over at the death to hand the title to Exiles on a silver platter.
It was a battling performance from Exiles, who had been beaten 47-25 in the West Asia Cup final by Bahrain a few weeks ago, but Stinson said their display in the final game of the season was a performance that had been coming.
“Today was the performance we were threatening all season so we’re delighted we could do it on the big stage,” said the Northern Irishman.
“From the double two years ago to the double this year, picking up the two biggest trophies in UAE rugby, the Sevens and the Premiership, we’re delighted.
“We’re still gutted about the West Asia Premiership and Cup but fair play to Dragons and Bahrain, they deserved that and you can’t take that away from them.
“But to finish top of the log in the UAE and pick up the final is testament to the boys and their doggedness all season. I am so pleased for the boys, the coaches and especially Durandt for steering the ship all season.
“There were some boys injured today such as Danny Waddy and Kookies (Lehan Koekemoer) and they have to be congratulated too as they were huge this season and a huge part of what we achieved, so it was great we could win it for them. A real team effort.
“And a nice way for me, Liam (Andrews) and Kris Hughes to sign off from Exiles rugby.
“Four finals, two trophies, not a bad season for a team that were last year called “also rans”. You have to applaud the squad, the management and the back room staff including our awesome physio Chris Page for that.”
It was agony for Wanderers – champions of the Conference two seasons ago – who had missed a penalty just a few minutes earlier that would have seen them win a second title in three years.
As it was, Shane Thornton’s Tigers went up the other end of the pitch, with a deep kick from defence deceiving Sharjah’s full-back and gifting Tigers an attacking platform. They took full advantage to storm over the whitewash soon after to send the team and fans into rapture.
“It was brutal,” said Sharjah chairman Shane Breen.
“Missing a kick to win it and then losing is tough but fair play to Tigers, they were great.”
It was a fitting finale for one of the UAE’s youngest clubs, who were only established in 2014, while playing against one of the country’s oldest teams in Sharjah – set up in 1977.
It had been a pulsating final against two teams who could not be separated all season. Both teams had finished the campaign on 41 points, and the final proved to be a mirror image.
Tigers led 20-13 late on but a try in the final minutes from Sharjah brought them back within two points, with the conversion coolly slotted to send the game to extra time.
From there it was not to be though for Wanderers – who won their title against Jebel Ali Dragons in similarly nervy fashion in 2015/16 – scoring a last gasp try to win 27-26.
Last year’s final was also a nail-biter as Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds beat Al Ain Amblers with a golden score in extra time.
In the Conference Bottom 4 final, meanwhile, between last season’s Top 6 finalists, Amblers gained a little slice of revenge as they beat Quins 24-16.
Elsewhere on Friday, Mike Ballard praised his battling Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds side as they exorcised the demons of a year ago to beat Jebel Ali Dragons 3rds and lift the UAE Community League title.
Victory was down to the flair of a pair of Quins’ Frenchmen as Gwennael Pettilat bagged a late winning try, while Alexandre De Sambucy also crossed the whitewash.
De Sambucy touched down in the first half, with Joao Guerrierio converting. He then added a penalty before Pettilat scored in the 70th minute, either side of Charles Abban and Ian Overton scoring to level the game for Dragons.
Ballard said: “The boys battled. It really epitomised club rugby, having teenagers playing alongside vets and everyone in between.
“I don’t think a training session went by without somebody mentioning the Dragons. They are a strong club, and we knew that the title was going to go through Jebel Ali.
“The boys are going to be talking about this one for a long time. The Dragons put out a strong side and it was a very physical game, but our boys didn’t give an inch.
“Above all, it was a great day for the club. A lot of our guys coach in the junior section, so they were here at 08:00 winning championships with the Under-9s and Under-11s, and then they came out and got one for themselves.”