After another arduous campaign, it’s safe to say the 2017/18 top-flight season has re-ignited the art of competition in UAE rugby, following last term’s major trophies being swept up by the all-conquering Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ juggernaut.
Quins have been caught up by their biggest rivals, with Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain all making huge strides this season. Quins held on to their Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title from last year and added the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup – and the fact they remained so competitive amid a raft of departures a feat in itself.
Yet the four major titles were shared around the other three clubs, with a resurgent Exiles claiming a Dubai Sevens and UAE Premiership double, Dragons lifting the West Asia Premiership to earn a first trophy in four years and the Bahrain revolution under Louie Tonkin yielding a first piece of silverware in eight years in the shape of the West Asia Cup.
A nod also to fledgling Dubai Eagles, who were unceremoniously kicked out of the nest into their debut season, but eventually found their feet, with a brighter future ahead.
Here we hand out our end of season awards for player, coach, team and game of the season.
The way it worked was we gave every club in the UAE’s top-tier West Asia Premiership three votes apiece – head coach, captain and chairman. The only rule they had to adhere to was they could not vote for someone from their own club for either player, coach or team of the season, but they were allowed to include their own club in the game of the season category.
The 21-man panel included Ross Samson, Henry Paul and Stuart Quinn (Dragons); Luke Stevenson, Mike McFarlane and Andy Cole (Quins); Durandt Gerber, Jacques Benade and Mike Wolff (Exiles); Lindsey Gibson, Louie Tonkin and Mike Cunningham (Bahrain); Jonny Taylor, Peter Henderson and Jake Basson (Saracens); Dave Knight, Mike Wernham and Simon Lewis (Hurricanes) and Andrew O’Driscoll, Conor Coakley and Sean Carey (Eagles).
Bahrain hooker Gibson has been unanimously announced as the player of the season, with six of 21 votes being registered for the Scotsman.
Coach of the season was a tightly-contested affair with Paul of Dragons edging out Bahrain’s director of rugby Tonkin by seven votes to six.
Team of the season goes to Bahrain, with the voting statistics reversed as they earned seven votes to Dragons’ six.
The game of the season ended in a three-way tie between two epic West Asia Premiership clashes; Dragons’ 36-32 win in Bahrain on the final day that earned them the title by a mere point; their early-season 34-33 defeat at home to Quins and the West Asia Cup semi-final between Quins and Bahrain which ended with Tonkin’s men going through to the final via a 26-21 win.
Each game received three votes so we cast the deciding one, giving the nod to the Dragons 33 Quins 34 encounter.
The home side were well-structured, efficient in attack and resolute in defence as they dismantled Scarlets 38-16 in an one-sided semi-final.
Scarlets – the reigning PRO14 champions – didn’t bring the energy required and had few chances to light up the game, with Leinster more ruthless and clinical with and without the ball.
Wayne Pivac’s side didn’t look like they believed in their pace and game plan, but when you have attackers coming at you with such speed and aggression it is easy to tire and make mistakes.
The Blues were utterly dominant – they carried well, their execution in attack and defence was accurate and they got over the gain line too easily, scoring five tries in a virtuoso display.
If it turns out to be a Leinster vs Munster final, should we just save the trip across to Spain and let it be played at Croke Park? 😂😝.. jokes joke.. all the best to all the teams!. Thanks for sorting my weekend out. #couchpotato— nemzy (@nemani_nadolo) April 21, 2018
Any time they got the ball in their hands they looked like scoring.
Scott Fardy may have picked up the man-of-the-match award for his totemic performance, but overall the pack was oustanding.
From the industrious work of Cian Healy in the loose right through to towering lock James Ryan and Jordi Murphy at No8, Leinster purred with dominance and were able to provide quick ball to get Leinster on the front foot each time.
In the backs, Jamison Gibson-Park looked like Aaron Smith with his ball distribution and consistency, Johnny Sexton scored a try and added 13 points and the defensive pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose were instrumental.
Henshaw, in particular, deserves a special mention for his stellar showing.
This Leinster side is very good.— Brian Moore (@brianmoore666) April 21, 2018
Returning just 10 weeks after shoulder recontruction, the 24-year-old looked dominant in collisions and his carrying in midfield put Leinster in control.
With Ringrose on his outside, both men produced a defensive masterclass and will be key to Leinster’s chances on May 12.
With three weeks to go until the final in Bilbao, Leinster can sit back and reflect on a positive season to date with a play-off spot in the PRO14 already secured.
In what has been a promising and highly satisfying season to date, Leo Cullen’s men look unstoppable as they go in search of a dream double.
Johnny Sexton was all smiles as he refused to say which side he’d prefer to face in next month’s Champions Cup final after helping Leinster book their place in the Bilbao showdown with a thumping defeat of Scarlets at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
Munster, Leinster’s bitter Irish rivals, face French club Racing 92 – Sexton’s former side – in Sunday’s second semi-final in Bordeaux.
But the Leinster captain, who scored 18 of the Irish province’s points in a resounding 38-16 win over Scarlets, jokingly dismissed the enquiry.
“Do you expect me to answer that?” he replied, with a laugh. “I’ll just give whoever (qualifies] a team talk now! They’re both quality teams, no matter who plays it’s going to be a very tough game.”
Fly-half Sexton, the on-field tactical mastermind as Ireland completed a Six Nations Grand Slam earlier this season, added: “Racing were champions a couple of years ago in France and Munster, if we play against Munster it will be a very special game for all of us.
“Racing more so for me than the rest of us. It’s going to be a tough game no matter who we play.”
It is likely to be tougher than Saturday’s semi-final, where Leinster dismantled a Scarlets side who headed across from Wales buoyed by having beaten the same opponents in last season’s Pro 12 semi-final in Dublin.
This time around, three-times European champions Leinster ruthlessly dominated from start to finish.
“I said on Friday that we’d find out in the game if we learnt from last year’s defeat, and we did,” said Sexton, one of five Leinster try-scorers on Saturday that also included former Wallaby back-row Scott Fardy.
– ‘Clinical Leinster’ -“We looked like a different team to the one that played in that semi-final last year,” the Ireland playmaker added. “We are, in many ways — a lot of players who didn’t play last year made a big difference today.”
“We’ve been underdogs and won, we’ve been favourites and lost…I don’t think we’re that much better than Scarlets, we just took our chances.”