Exiles won 38-12 as Quins’ hold on the last one of their four major trophies from a brilliant 2016/17 campaign was finally loosened at Dubai Sports City on Friday night.
Quins were shut down, suffocated by Exiles’ gargantuan pack, but also prevented or unable to play their usual free-flowing brand, with indiscipline and errors punctuating their game throughout the 80 minutes.
“We didn’t really get the chance to play any rugby. The boys are frustrated and that built and the indiscipline came as a result,” said McFarlane.
“I’d never take it away from any team in a final though. Whoever wins, wins and hats off to Exiles and everything they’ve achieved this year. Jacques (Benade, head coach) has done a good job there and some of their boys had really good games yesterday.”
Sport is cyclical. Dominance doesn’t last forever. For the spirit of the game of rugby and its future in the UAE, it’s a good thing that Quins’ rivals have finally been able to escape from the grip they had on the domestic landscape last season.
There were fine margins in Quins relinquishing their chokehold, even in a transitional year when last season’s supreme squad was absolutely decimated by injuries, departures and the forced retirement of club legend Ben Bolger.
They lost the West Asia Premiership by a point after Jebel Ali Dragons pulled off a heroic bonus point victory in Bahrain on the last day of the season. They were beaten by Bahrain and Dragons in the West Asia Cup and Dubai Sevens semi-finals respectively.
In the last two seasons these two competitions were the only occasions Quins weren’t either champions or runners-up – having won six of 10 titles in the past 24 months; seven of 11 if you include this season’s inaugural UAE Premiership Cup.
In the last four seasons, Quins have won an amazing 10 of 18 trophies on offer in Gulf rugby. That includes their quintuple of West Asia Premiership and Cup, UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League a year ago.
They won the Gulf Men’s League trophy at the Sevens three years in a row from 2014-16 as well as the UAE Premiership in 2014/15 and this season retained their Champions League crown in pre-season as well as winning the Premiership Cup.
To put that feat in context, the club with the second most trophies is Exiles, with four trophies. They added the UAE Premiership title to their Sevens triumph in December – a maiden triumph in 11 years. They won the UAE and West Asia Premiership double in Benade’s first season in 2015/16.
Bahrain (West Asia Cup), Jebel Ali Dragons (West Asia Premiership), Abu Dhabi Saracens (West Asia Championship/Gulf Top 6 2014/15) and Doha (Champions League 2015/16) have one title apiece.
It’s some record, and one McFarlane wants his players to be proud of.
“Teams have closed the gap but we’ve still been competitive and won titles this season,” said McFarlane.
“The boys are all competitive and have high standards. Some of the trophies slipped away and that was tough to take. The West Asia Premiership we lost by a point and with Bahrain losing at home to Dragons, a result we never saw coming.
“We look back and that was our fault when we lost at home to Dragons, we spilled points there. That’s where that went. At the Sevens it was a good strong semi-final against Dragons, not much we could have done.
“There were fine margins in all the competitions. I think we were runners-up in all of them. In the last two years we’ve won six and been runners-up twice in the last 10 finals, so the Sevens and the West Asia Cup were the only finals we haven’t been in.
“That’s a cracking record and something we can be really proud of. And it feeds the rivalry between us and Exiles. It’s a good one and everyone’s enjoyed it, inside and outside the clubs, and now we have Bahrain and Dragons coming into it too.”
Having finished the season locked at the top of the UAE Conference, both Dubai Tigers and Sharjah Wanderers would have been looking for any edge they could get as they headed into the Top 5 final on Friday.
For the fledgling Tigers, their biggest edge was arguably the fact they had a former UAE international who had enjoyed significant success with Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Doha during a near decade spent in the Middle East.
New Zealander Jamie Clarke joined Tigers last year, but on the business rather than the playing side as development manager of the club’s backers, Heartbeat Sports.
He returned from a year off this year and it paid dividends as the flanker led Tigers – winners of the Conference’s Bottom 5 title for the previous two years – to the second tier’s senior trophy.
The showpiece was every bit as tight as the season – which saw Wanderers and Tigers finish joint top on 41 points. After Sharjah missed a penalty that would have won a game that went to extra time, Peter Kelly’s try saw Tigers roar to a 25-20 triumph.
Although a year off when he first arrived back in the UAE – Clarke was with Quins for four-and-a-half years before spending another four-and-a-half in Qatar with Doha – did his body the world of good, the Taupo native admits a return to the pitch this year proved just too tantalising.
“A year off did me the world of good when I first moved here last year,” said the 32-year-old.
“I didn’t play last year and not having the pressure of Premiership rugby gave me the chance to enjoy my rugby more this year. I think it rekindled the fire a bit.
“I’m not getting any younger so you think about those things, but we’ll see what we do in the future as a club.”
Tigers now have the choice of accepting promotion to the West Asia Premiership for the 2018/19 season – an option Sharjah declined when they won the Conference title two years ago.
For a club only established in 2014, Clarke believes they will ultimately decide to stay where they are and continue building – after all they have come a long way in four years; even in 12 months.
“We set the goal two years ago that this is where we wanted to be. We worked hard to try and achieve it. It’s our fourth season as a club and we needed to make sure yesterday we made it happen,” added Clarke.
“It’s been a big 12 months for the men’s team. The club’s been here for four years but we’ve never won the Conference. We never had a men’s team when the club started.”
Tigers’ junior set-up is among the best in the UAE, something which bodes well for the club’s future.
“To be sustainable in the Middle East you have to have that junior section, which has been and still is a big emphasis. The men’s team was kind of a social club but then they decided to give it a crack. Some good boys moved to town and we decided to drive it forward this year.
“We’ve been lucky enough to attract some good players that have come to Dubai or been here a while. Culturally we’re pretty sound, there’s a relaxed nature at the club, we still only train once a week, we don’t put too much pressure on the boys to train twice a week.
“The social side is still there but they also know when they have to show up.”
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.”