The UAE is a supremely transient place, but Neil ver Weij has lived in the Emirates and been part of Jebel Ali Dragons for 25 years – so victory for his side in the Community League final yesterday was pretty special for him.
When you add in the fact that the 55-year-old played on the losing side in last year’s final, Dragons’ 22-11 win was a fitting way for him to end his first season as Dragons team manager.
“I was still playing last season, I played in the final,” said the 55-year-old.
“From playing to coaching has been a massive difference. My mind still wants to be there but my body can’t. I’m still there living every minute with the boys.
“They’ve been very good this season after an awkward start. We didn’t have a complete team then but we’ve turned it round and become a great squad, with a tremendous spirit. Some boys are leaving so to leave with a trophy is the best gift we could give them.”
Dragons kicked off the inaugural UAE Rugby Finals Day at Dubai Sports City Friday with a victory that ruined Quins’ chances of claiming three of the four trophies on offer.
They were always in control of the game, with Chris Pike scoring a brace and Scott Kerr and Ryan Baird also crossing to seal a superb season.
Having lost in the first Community League final a year ago to Beaver Nomads, Ver Weij admitted Jebel Ali came into the final with a lot of pressure on them.
“There was a lot of pressure on us and we’re up against a very good team too in Quins,” he said.
“We knew today was going to be extremely tough so we had to make sure we played our game, which we did.”
Kent Watene had arguably the biggest impact of any player on UAE Rugby Finals Day as he first scored the try that sent the UAE Conference Top 6 final to extra time – and then grabbed the golden score to clinch an epic win for Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
This game tends to throw up thrilling encounters – with Sharjah Wanderers claiming Top 6 glory a year ago with a try in the last seconds to secure a 27-26 victory over Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds.
This year’s final was even more dramatic, with New Zealander Watene at its centre as Quins scored a try with 14 seconds remaining against the valiant 14 men of Al Ain Amblers.
It was an enthralling encounter throughout, Quins erasing a 19-7 half-time deficit to win a game that will live long in the memory.
“We gave them a massive lead, so to run them down and score a try to take it to extra time and then to win it like that was pretty awesome. It was a great feeling,” said 30-year-old flanker Watene.
“It was amazing to win it like we did, to score the try to take it to extra time and then the winning one, it was pretty special. All I had to do was fall over the line really, the guys in front just fed it to me and did all the work. It’s a special feeling.”
A fairytale ending to a season that had started dreadfully for Amblers was not to be. But having began it by withdrawing from the top-flight UAE Premiership after been shorn of a host of star names by rivals clubs, they can be proud of how it ended.
Amblers came into the game as slight favourites, having finished top of the Top 6 with four wins from five, six points ahead of Quins.
The two teams had played out a thriller just weeks ago, with Quins running out 34-33 winners at Zayed Sports City, so it was perhaps no surprise the final was again closely contested.
“We won by a point against them a few weeks ago and knew we had to step it up today,” added Watene.
“They showed in that first half they’d gone up a gear so we really had to grind. It’s a massive achievement.”
Despite all their talent, Watene admitted it was Quins’ character that saw them claim a memorable win.
“It really was (more about character today),” he said. “We’ve really worked hard this year. Everyone has bought into the team culture. I’ve been here three years, we’ve been building to this so it’s an awesome feeling.”
Amblers took hold of the first half after Quins flanker Gwennael Pettilat was sent to the sin-bin. Rocco De Bruyn’s side went ahead in the 15th minute through a quite brilliant try – something that was to become a feature of the game – through winger Ebrahim Doree.
He crashed over after being fed by an exquisite one-handed behind the back pass by Adam Chapman, although Frederick Karl Holdt missed a tough conversion.
Three minutes later it was 12-0 with Holdt powering over after throwing a sublime dummy after a free-flowing move.
South African flanker Gerrit Visser got Quins in the game just before half time with their first try, influential fly-half Tom Brown kicking a sublime conversion from the touchline.
Their hard work was undone a minute before the interval though when Al Ain crossed for their third try. This time Doree was the provider, throwing another one-handed pass to centre Ilisoni Galala who burst through a tiny gap and dived for the corner, managing to ground the ball despite the attention of two Quins tacklers.
Holdt nailed the touchline conversion to sent Amblers in at the break 19-7 up.
They could have buckled but Quins got right back in it eight minutes after half time with a try for centre Ashbey Williams, who had the freedom of the field to touch down after a loop pass found him in acres.
He then added a quick-fire second to draw the sides level with the try of the game. An Al Ain clearance kick was fielded by Quins winger Neil McRory. Full-back Tom Southall chipped ahead and Williams outmuscled his marker to reach it first before throwing a debastating step to evade the full-back and streak in under the posts to tie the game at 19-19.
Quins were in the ascendancy but Amblers retook the lead when Epeli Davetawalu took a pass from a team-mate in contact and sprinted in from 30 metres with 13 minutes left.
The big man quickly went from hero to zero though when he was sent off for deliberately killing the ball – having earlier been shown a yellow.
Quins poured forward, initially to no avail, with Amblers defending desperately. The pressure eventually told with 14 seconds left as they rumbled forward from a five metre scrum and Watene gleefully touched down. They still needed to convert but Brown kept his nerve to send the game into the extra period.
With the man advantage it seemed inevitable that Quins would win it, and so it proved with Watene again the scorer, diving over from a maul to bring to an end a brilliant game.
Quins’ relentless pursuit of silverware culminated in a thrilling finale at the inaugural UAE Rugby Finals Day at Dubai Sports City, with Mike McFarlane’s men winning the fifth and final accolade on offer to draw the domestic season to a close in fitting style.
It was a familiar outcome between the two fierce rivals, with victory a fourth from four for Quins over their beleaguered opponents, although Dragons pushed the champions to the wire in a thrilling spectacle – one that required Emosi Ratuvanacua’s 80th minute try to finally extinguish their dreams of thwarting a Quins monopoly.
Luke Stevenson, who put in a familiar man of the match display, was just relieved to get over the line after a bruising encounter.
“We had to work hard. That’s one of the most physical games I’ve felt in a while,” said the fly-half.
“Every game has been tough, Dragons have given us four good games, they’ve all been close bar one, so we’re just happy to get over the line.
“It’s been a long season and the last few weeks have been pretty tough on the body and mind. It’s a good feeling, the boys have earned it, we’ve worked hard all year.
Having won the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League, Dubai Sevens, West Asia Premiership and West Asia Cup previously, it’s been hard to avoid talk of the Quintuple.
It is something Stevenson claims he and his team-mates have been able to put to one side, although he acknowledges the significance of claiming five trophies in one campaign.
“Obviously it (quintuple) gets mentioned, it’s been raised but we just try and put it to the back of our minds and concentrate on winning games,” he added.
“The standard of the league is really good this year so you can’t take any game for granted. We’re aware. We missed out closely last year and this year we’ve managed to win those tight games we lost last year and get over the line.
“I think it’s exaggerated a bit because a few of the trophies have come out of nowhere but the three main ones are the West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens, so anything on top of that is a bonus.”
Dragons full-back Imad Reyal was left exhausted by yet another defeat to Quins, but was satisfied with the performance of his team.
“We’ve been beaten by Quins every other game this season so we wanted this win really bad. We gave it everything but were just unlucky in the end,” said the UAE international.
“We wanted to leave it all out on the field as it was the last game of the season, play as hard as possible and we did that.”
Stevenson was off target with an early long range penalty, but potted his next two to open up a 6-0 lead for Quins.
Dragons had been penned almost exclusively inside their own half up until then, but signaled their intent when they took the lead with the opening try.
Explosive former Al Ain Amblers centre Sakiusa Naisau burst through the Quins defence to go in under the posts, with Dan Bell’s conversion giving Dragons a 7-6 lead to ignite the game into life.
Quins’ own livewire centre Brian Geraghty was key to their opening try. The Irishman rampaged down the left wing before offloading to the supporting Ratuvanacua who strode over. Stevenson converted to send Quins in 13-7 ahead at the interval.
Stevenson was off target from the tee early in the second period, with Quins’ advantage cut to three when Bell bisected the uprights from 40 metres.
They reclaimed the ball from kick-off though and just a few phases later Stevenson cut through to score Quins’ second try – his conversion and a following penalty meant he had scored all but five of his side’s opening 23 points.
That could have been the moment that took the game away from Dragons but Bell again ate into the advantage with a penalty before they got the score back to 23-20 with a superb second try.
Flanker Matt Henry gained ground and fed Nasau, he surged ahead and offloaded to Reyal who made a bee-line for the posts to make things very interesting.
Bell had the chance to level the scores with minutes left, but he sent a penalty agonizingly wide, much to the relief of Quins.
And they then made the game safe through Ratuvanacua’s second try, the Fijian rumbling to the line and crashing over, with Tom Brown drop-kicking the conversion to send Quins and their supporters delirious.