Referee Michael Broderick was the busiest man on the field as he sent off one and sent eight more to the sin-bin in a manic top of the table UAE Conference clash between Dubai Exiles 2nds and Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds.
Dragons won 27-19 at The Sevens to make it eight wins from eight and take a firm grip on the Conference, but that played second fiddle to the constant stream of players to the bin in a haphazard second half and Broderick’s control of it.
When Dragons hooker Ben Pryor was sent off for a dangerous high tackle midway through the second period, Dragons were down to 11 men with three other players already in the sin bin.
Their disadvantage provided a lifeline to Exiles, and when Janneman Venter dived over to make lave his side trailing just 22-19 there seemed only one winner.
However, UAE international Ryno Fourie stretched Dragons’ lead almost immediately with a killer try and Robbie Cameron’s men held on for a “special” victory.
“It was a grind but sometimes you have to grind out games and today we did that better than them,” said the Scotsman.
“It’s special. It’s a nice early Christmas present. It was tough but I think we deserved it overall. I think we underestimated them in the first 20 minutes, we were asleep, but we are a good side and we came back.
“We stuck in there and James Elliot Square kept us ahead with his boot. While others around him were losing their heads he kept his and that’s what he’s in the team for. He’s probably the best kicker at the club. We’ve got eight out of eight and I’m really proud of the boys.”
For Exiles, who also saw Tomas Sackman and Chris Riding stretchered off with neck injuries, it was a first defeat in seven, but Gareth Venter believes his side will come back stronger.
“No-one likes losing but we’ll learn from it,” he said.
“We showed a lot of heart and the boys did the Exiles badge proud. I think that will give them confidence. Sometimes you have to lose to learn from it. There’s still a lot of rugby left and the boys will go away for Christmas now and come back stronger in the new year.”
Exiles lead early on through Australian No8 Nathan Watts try but, after missing an early sighter, Elliot Square’s metronomic boot became the difference between the sides.
He reduced the deficit with two penalties before converting former Al Ain Amblers man Niko Volavola’s try and adding another three-pointer as Dragons led 16-7 at the interval.
He added another two as Dragons took command of proceedings, although Pryor’s dismissal in the 68th minute meant seven players had fallen foul of the referee in under 30 second half minutes.
Exiles closed the gap with Neil Du Preez and Venter tries but Fourie, who had earlier seen yellow, scored to edge Dragons clear as the league leaders held on.
With many people heading home hoping for some snow and dreaming of turkey with Christmas approaching, all Robbie Cameron and Gareth Venter want under their trees are a perfect record going into 2017.
Dubai Exiles 2nds and Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds meet at The Sevens Friday with the only two 100 per cent records of the UAE Conference season on the line.
Dragons, last year’s beaten Conference finalists, are top of the early season table with seven wins from seven having scored just shy of 300 points so far.
They travel to rivals Exiles, who have been in stunning form themselves. They trail Dragons by five points having played a game less, with six wins from six, although they have incredibly shipped just a miserly 11 points.
With no game for their stacked first team this weekend, Dragons coach Robbie Cameron said he had the option of bringing in several players to bolster Dragons’ ranks, though fly-half Dan Bell is likely to be the only one.
“We’ve got a strong side, my problem was choosing to keep players from the ones putting their hands up, and being loyal to boys who have got us to seven wins from seven,” said the Scotsman.
“That’s what I’ve done. We’re not bringing any regular first team players. Dan Bell’s started once or twice and has been on the bench for the firsts so he’ll come back in, but we’re certainly not loading the squad. We are still strong without doing that.
“It’s still pretty much the second team, and we know the Exiles will be the same. It’s shaping up to be an absolute cracking game.
“I want to stick with the boys that got us here, it has to be that way. We’ve got guys like Sammy Ewing not getting in, he’s got a UAE cap, and Ian Overton left us and went to Hurricanes, he didn’t play for us. We’re recruited pretty well which has helped because all sides are stronger.”
This Christmas cracker is set up nicely between the league’s strongest sides with Dragons having three more games left and Exiles four before the Conference splits into the Top 6 and Bottom 5 in the new year.
Exiles coach Gareth Venter has bemoaned the loss of several players who have already joined the Emirates exodus for Christmas, while six players are missing as they are in the Philippines on international duty with the UAE Under-19 side.
“It’s difficult this time of the year with many boys away already on holiday but it should still be a good game,” said Venter.
“There’s just been an exodus – most of our teachers all out of town and six of our U-19s that usually start for the seconds are on UAE duty.
“I believe it will be a tough battle upfront and whoever controls the breakdown will have ball to put away the backs – of which both teams have pace and skill.”
Abu Dhabi Harlequins head to Bahrain Friday hoping to sign off for 2016 with one more win that will make it a perfect end to the year.
Mike McFarlane’s men lead the way in both the West Asia Premiership and UAE Premiership, with four wins and a draw from their opening five WAP games.
They have played a game less than second-placed Jebel Ali Dragons yet hold a two-point advantage over Henry Paul’s resurgent side.
They enter the final domestic game of the year on a high after winning a third straight Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Rugby Sevens earlier this month.
The only blemish on their record is a 23-23 home draw with Doha in October, but despite their early dominance, McFarlane insists there won’t be any slacking off with perhaps one eye on Christmas.
“The boys had one session off and came roaring back into training,” said McFarlane following Quins’ Sevens triumph. “The players are relentless in training and know full well they are fighting for a spot in one of three sides which we field on Friday.
“The boys have worked tirelessly since early pre-season and are now pumped to finish this half of the season positively.”
Another side on the up are Friday’s hosts, who have won three and lost two of their WAP games, and sit in third.
Coach Louie Tonkin has further improved the west Asia men after they made strides last season, and he is hugely encouraged that the visit of Quins is the start of five home games from their remaining seven league fixtures.
“We’re really excited,” said Tonkin, whose side haven’t played at home since the opening night of the season, which yielded a superb 51-10 victory against Dragons way back on September 23.
“We had a really good result that night and have had four really difficult away trips with mixed fortunes, but had nine important points which puts us in a really good place.
“Seven games left and five are at home so we really know how important those home games are. We know about the threat of Harlequins, they’ve been the most consistent side so far, top of the league, so we know they’re a real threat and full of talent.
“We know the enormity of the challenge but we’re really excited to play at home. There’ll be a big crowd and people are looking forward to watching a good game of rugby before they go away for Christmas.”
After opening wins against Dragons and Dubai Hurricanes, Bahrain lost two straight to Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Saracens, but bounced back with a gritty 18-15 win in Doha in early November.
“We had a really good win five weeks ago in Doha which we felt was a bit of a turning point for us. We clicked,” added the Welshman.
“We’ve had three season ending injuries, but we’ve got a good squad and we feel we can put out a squad capable of winning if we perform well, and we know we’re going to have to play out of our skin to pick up a result. We’re optimistic.”