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.”
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.”