A brilliant interception try from Joe Cooper earned Jebel Ali Dragons a scintillating 26-23 victory against Bahrain in the top of the table clash in the West Asia Premiership Friday night.
The late drama was completed by the visitors scoring right at the death to ensure a thrilling end to a titanic tussle which the away side led 15-9 at the interval.
Victory for Dragons saw Henry Paul’s side maintain their lead at the top of the pile, although Bahrain;’s maiden defeat sees them leapfrogged in second by Abu Dhabi Harlequins – who thrashed Dubai Eagles 74-8 in the capital.
That now sets up another huge clash at Zayed Sports City next week as Quins host Dragons.
Cooper’s interception, on Dragons’ own line as Bahrain – who saw a try disallowed – proved decisive in triumph, with Louie Tonkin’s men at least able to console themselves with a losing bonus point.
“Both teams were very rusty,” said Tonkin, who saw his side cross through Jon Kenny, Terence Tantoh and Alastair Crombie, while Iwan Phillips kicked the rest.
In Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, it was a case of capital punishment for Eagles, with their skipper Conor Coakley admitting they were taught a “sore lesson” by Mike McFarlane’s men.
“We started really well for the first 20 or 30 minutes,” said the Irishman, whose side opened the scoring with a penalty followed by a try.
“We started really well for the first 20 or 30 minutes but then they just jumped on any small mistake we made and scored. They were much fitter… they look like they’ve worked hard in the gym and on their conditioning, while the long break has affected us.
“Our match fitness and conditioning has suffered and I don’t think as individuals we put the work in to keep our fitness levels up.”
It’s a lesson Coakley insists the fledgling Eagles will learn from though.
“We learned a hard lesson today on where we need to be to compete for 80 minutes,” he added.
“But we will take it on the chin, learn a lesson, and put the work in. We will bounce back. We know we are far better than how we played today.
“Abu Dhabi were excellent. They were clinical and deserved that scoreline.”
In the other game of the weekend, Dubai Exiles v Abu Dhabi Saracens was called off after the capital city side forfeited.
It might be difficult to shake off the rust of what’s been a stop-start West Asia Premiership campaign in the early weeks of 2018, but Abu Dhabi Harlequins coach Mike McFarlane has been thoroughly impressed with his side since returning to training following the festive break.
Quins get back into the swing of things with what might look an inviting fixture against second bottom Dubai Eagles at their Zayed Sports City home on Friday, but McFarlane has been impressed with the “excellent intensity” shown as a crucial period of games gets underway at the top of the table.
“We can’t wait to get back amongst it,” said McFarlane.
“I’ve been really impressed with the players’ dedication over the break and they’ve come back raring to go, training with excellent intensity to kick Christmas into touch. They are a close knit bunch so they were happy to be back together and catching up.”
An upbeat Eagles captain, Conor Coakley, meanwhile, feels his side are capable of an upset, so long as the players have not been indulging their sweet tooths too much over the festive period back home with friends and family.
“It’s good to be back after the Christmas break. Our lads are looking fresh and sharp although a few look like they’ve had a few too many Quality Streets and enjoyed a good Christmas,” joked the Irishman.
“We’ve got a full strength squad and selection has been tough. We’ve had a few new arrivals come in this month which has given us a boost and provides completion for places, which is great.
“We’re very much underdogs but don’t be surprised if you see an upset in Abu Dhabi.”
Elsewhere, Dubai Exiles return to 15s action following a glittering triumph at the Dubai Sevens in December – a first victory in the shortened format of the game at a tournament they started since 2006.
But in 15s they haven’t played in over two months and are looking to end a run of three straight defeats to leading lights Jebel Ali Dragons, Bahrain and Quins.
Jacques Benade’s side are seven points behind Quins in third place, but the South African feels Exiles can still gatecrash the title party.
“The next three weeks will be very import for us if we want to be involved in the play-offs or challenging for a cup,” he said.
“I still think anyone in the top four or five can win the league so there is a lot to play for.”
Benade admitted there are some niggling injury concerns, with star fly-half Durandt Gerber likely to face a late fitness test, but he added that training has reconvened with a buzz about The Sevens.
“We are still missing two or three boys due to injuries but everyone is keen to go out there and play some good rugby,” added Benade, who believes both this weekend’s opponents Abu Dhabi Saracens and Eagles will cause problems for team s in the second half of the season.
“I’m not sure what to expect from Saracens after the Canes and Quins games but I am sure it will be very physical and they will be want to go out there and see this game as the start of a new year.
“There are always new players coming in after the Christmas break so I will not be surprised if Saracens or Eagles have some great results before the end of the season.”
Saracens were rocked before Christmas when chairman Jay Danielson left to return home to Australia, but they are back at their spiritual home of Al Ghazal, and captain Jonny Taylor is confident looking ahead.
“We still have a lot to do, but we looking in much better shape than when we started the season,” said the South African flanker.
“The club now has a home and there are many more improvements to come.”
Jacob Basson has replaced Danielson as chairman, while Peter Henderson has taken on the head coach role.
Taylor added: “Jakes, Hendo and others from the committee have really done a lot of hard work for us. Jakes, the new chairman, has led from the front. He is changing a lot for the better of the club.”
A crucial period of the West Asia Premiership campaign begins on Friday as the fight for this season’s title begins to heat up.
Dragons welcome Bahrain to Jebel Ali for the first of three mouthwatering weeks of fixtures involving the trio of favourites for silverware, after which things should appear clearer.
At the moment just a point separates joint table toppers Jebel Ali Dragons and Bahrain on 21 points, with reigning champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins on 20 in third, all sides having played five games.
All three face one another in the coming chaos, with fourth-placed Dubai Exiles – seven points adrift of Quins and buoyed by their Dubai Sevens success – looking to capitalise on any mistakes those above them should make in the hopes of making it a four-way tussle for the trophy.
Dragons coach Henry Paul is glad his side have the advantage of playing at home, although the former dual code international admits that won’t count for much if his team don’t show up against Bahrain.
“The boys are keen to get back to it, it’s not been ideal training with lots of guys away still from the holidays, but I suppose it’ll be the same for everyone,” said Paul, who feels that the destination of the title will still go down to the end of the season.
“It is an important game in terms of league position and I’m hoping home field advantage sways it but we’ve got to turn up too and play smart, at times vs Canes (Dragons won 30-13 before Christmas) we were guilty of giving away cheap field position, plus Mike’s (Wernham, Canes coach) team played well early on.
“Games come thick and fast now though it’ll probably go right to the final game of the season to decide the West Asia champion.”
Dragons, like Bahrain, have been back on the paddock for two weeks, and skipper Ross Samson knows the importance of starting 2018 off right.
“We’re excited to play this weekend after a decent break. We had last week and this week to run off the Christmas turkey,” joked the Scotsman.
“It’s definitely a big game for us as we haven’t had the best run against them in recent times but I think we have improved a lot so it’s all to play for. We know they’ll be physical and not make too many mistakes so we just need to be accurate and take our chances when we get them.”
Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin is aware of the task facing his side, but he can’t wait for the game.
“We haven’t played since December 15 so we’re excited to be back,” said the Welshman.
“We’ve been back for two weeks and the boys are working really hard and are eager to play. It’s a huge three weeks in the league, we play Dragons this week, Dragons play Quins the week after and then the week after that we play Quins, so it’s huge.”
Despite the tendency to keep one eye on the future fixtures, Tonkin is adamant 100 per cent focus is on nothing but Dragons this weekend.
“We’re focusing on ourselves and this game,” he added.
“We have some boys back from injury and are bringing a good squad. We’re confident if we can do the basics well and get our game going we’re good enough to win there, but we know it’s going to be a huge task.
“We’ve done some work on them and we know how talented they are. They’ve got some new threats to last year and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”