Wanderers beat Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds on Friday to lift the Conference crown but are likely to turn down promotion

Matt Jones 27/03/2016
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Wanderers were behind 16-0 early in the season showpiece on Friday before mounting a fight-back and snatching a 27-26 victory in the last seconds.

In addition to lifting the Conference crown and completing an unbeaten 16-game season, victory also brings with it promotion to the top-tier UAE Premiership, but making the step up is not mandatory.

Although the players might be enamored with the idea of pitting their wits against the likes of Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Dubai Exiles next season, Sharjah officials say previous experience and the travails of 2014-15 Conference champions Al Ain Amblers this season mean they are in no hurry to move to the top tier of UAE domestic rugby.

“As a club we still haven’t discussed promotion yet. We’ll just enjoy Friday first and then we’ll sit down to discuss our options,” said club chairman, Shane Breen.

Sharjah players, coaches and fans invade the field after Bracken’s late try

“Amblers beat teams last year by much bigger margins than we have. As far as I know it’s not mandatory to go up. The decision will need to be thought through properly so we don’t repeat past mistakes.”

Wanderers' wonderful season

  • 15 wins from 16
  • One draw (20-20 v Dragons in November)
  • Points for - 431
  • Points against - 145

Although it’s easy to get swept up in the euphoria of Friday, Sharjah’s cautious approach is wholly practical.

Amblers have struggled badly in the Premiership. The Garden City side have lost all eight of their Premiership fixtures this season.

Andrew Rouvi’s men have won just once in 16 matches in 15s rugby this season, their sole victory coming against hapless Muscat in the West Asia Championship a few weeks ago.

It’s a far cry from how they steamrollered their way to promotion last season, and Wanderers are well aware they are not in a position currently to bridge the chasm to the Premiership teams.

“Regardless of the result at the weekend, the Premiership is some way off for Sharjah,” said head coach Nic Walters.

“We’ve made huge strides over the past few seasons and I’m certain the club will continue to move in the right direction – our performance throughout this season certainly raises our profile within the UAE.

Sharjah No8 Isaac Porter had a superb game for Wanderers

Sharjah No8 Isaac Porter had a superb game for Wanderers

“Adding to that, training at The Sevens makes us a far more accessible and attractive club for Dubai-based players, resulting in increased recruitment potential.

“However, the Premiership is a big step-up and, until we are able to field two sides with a clear development pathway, it is not a realistic prospect.”

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Unbeaten Sharjah Wanderers defeat Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds in UAE Conference Top 6 final

Matt Jones 27/03/2016
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The Wanderers celebrate their incredible campaign.

Sharjah Wanderers turned in a herculean performance to claw back a 16-point deficit and cap a superb season by beating Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds in a thrilling UAE Conference Top 6 final.

Wanderers, whose only dropped points in 16 games this season came in a 20-20 draw in the UAE Conference with Dragons in November, had been imperious before Friday.

It seemed they would fall at the final hurdle, however, with Dragons starting the final like a house on fire as Wanderers dreams started to turn to ashes.

Wanderers were behind for 73 minutes of the match but showed tremendous grit and character though to remain in the game, snatching the title by a point when John Bracken plunged over the whitewash way beyond the 80 minutes.

In a game fit for any final, the unbeaten Wanderers flirted with throwing their near perfect season away as they stumbled out of the blocks while Dragons stormed into a 16-0 lead inside the opening 20 minutes.

James Elliot Square kicked two early penalties before Jarrod Crossan crossed for the game’s opening try, the Number 8 diving over after a counter-attack and a spill from a Sharjah player.

The Wanderers were behind for 73 minutes of the match.

Elliot Square kicked a third penalty as the game already looked like it was about to get away from Wanderers, who had secured a home final after an 18-3 win against Dragons in their final Top 6 encounter the previous week.

But the hosts, driven on by a vociferous home crowd at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Ground, ignited the fight-back in the 26th minute when scrum-half Dave Ermerins darted over from a ruck after Sharjah had elected to kick for touch rather than at goal.

Dave Kiersey then kicked a penalty to further erode Dragons’ lead, which was down to just a point when Sharjah scored again on the stroke of half-time.

Impressive No8 Isaac Porter sparked the move with a determined run into Jebel Ali territory and when Ermerins spread the ball wide, centre Tim Shepherd scampered over to make it 16-15 and game on.

Dragons regrouped after the interval and despite Elliot Square having a try ruled out for a forward pass, they stretched their lead following another Sharjah handling error.

Scrum-half Arno van Zyl pounced, sprinting down the blind side and under the posts to give Elliot Square an easy conversion, and the lead stood at 23-15.

Tensions boiled over following a late hit on Porter, but Elliot Square kept his head to add another penalty, and when Kiersey inexplicably sent an attempt wide from in front of the posts, Dragons could sense victory.

They were given a lifeline though 10 minutes from time when former UAE international hooker Jonny Greenwood, who was magnificent when he entered the fray, crashed over after a great Sharjah drive.

Elliot Square was narrowly wide with an intuitive long drop goal but with their season on the line, Sharjah stepped up.

They made their way up the field and a string of penalties and an intense bout of pressure eventually proved too much for Dragons as Porter fed Bracken from a ruck and he dived over to complete the fairytale.

Sharjah head coach Nic Walters labeled his side’s comeback a championship-winning performance.

“Ultimately it was character that got us through,” said the Welshman.

“We hadn’t started to play (at 16-0 down) but I knew that as soon as we started applying our patterns, it would get us back in the game.

“The buy-in from the whole squad has been phenomenal. We’ve had to rotate players and not everyone’s been happy, but the character and support they give each other, the positivity in games, has been phenomenal.

“I came to Dubai four-and-a-half years ago and this is what I’ve been building towards. I wanted to be involved in finals as a player and it didn’t happen but I’m just grateful I’ve had the opportunity as a coach to guide these players to that point.”

Vanquished Dragons coach Robbie Cameron was disappointed for his players but impressed by Wanderers’ resolve.

“Nobody should have lost today. The problem is one team had to lose. I’m disappointed for the boys, not for me, because they’ve played really well and given their all,” said the Scotsman.

“Sharjah really wanted it today. Their hunger was amazing. That’s what makes a team win and they did. They probably edge it, probably deserved it.”

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Exiles and Saracens clash as UAE Premiership resumes

Matt Jones 24/03/2016
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Close encounter: Saracens (l) v Exiles.

Exiles eked out a gritty 6-5 victory when the two sides met in the Premiership at Al Ghazal in October, and prop Kristian Stinson insists their standards won’t slip.

“There’s no way we can switch off. The boys are too proud and too professional to do that,” he said.

Sarries are at near full strength, with only Phanta Quinsil missing after breaking a hand last week. “The boys are looking forward to giving a proper account of ourselves because we let ourselves down the last time we met,” said joint-head coach Craig Nutt.

Elsewhere, Harlequins will be looking to put the disappointment of missing out on the West Asia Championship behind them as they travel to the Garden City.

“We’re looking forward to getting back to the Premiership and continuing our fantastic run,” said head coach Mike McFarlane ahead of their game with Al Ain Amblers, for whom lock Esekaia Dranibota returns from injury. “This game will be our toughest so far, we just know we have to compete,” said Al Ain head coach, Andrew Rouvi.

Jebel Ali Dragons host Dubai Hurricanes tonight and Canes captain Daniel Perry insists his team want to rectify a 92-22 defeat to Exiles last week. “The lads are still hurting. We only have to wait a week to put it right and that’s what the lads are hungry to do,” he said.

Dragons director of rugby, Paul Hart, added: “We are introducing some young players with one eye on next season. That being said it’s a derby and we are desperate to win.”

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