It might seem a little premature to utter words like destiny, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the mammoth Abu Dhabi Harlequins v Jebel Ali Dragons clash on Friday is a seminal point in the West Asia Premiership season.
The two behemoths collide at Zayed Sports City with clear daylight at the top of the table reward for the victor, as well as the likely title of outright favourites for the 2017/18 cross border trophy.
The campaign is only at the halfway point, but there could be seismic consequences for those teams hoping to challenge should the next few weeks go awry.
Bahrain slipped three points behind Quins and Dragons after a narrow 26-23 defeat in Jebel Ali last week, with Louie Tonkin’s men on a bye week.
A clearer picture of the destination of this season’s WAP title will become clearer next week after Bahrain visit Quins to complete a mouthwatering beginning to 2018.
For now, Dragons’ UAE international winger Ian Overton is looking forward to a possible victory and the chance to celebrate skipper Ross Samson’s 30th birthday in style.
“It’s a massive game. The winner dictates their own destiny, loser has to pray other teams slip up,” said the Welshman, excitedly.
Overton scored the winning try against Quins in the semi-finals of the Gulf Men’s League at December’s Dubai Sevens, and he admitted the club are still upset they then fell at the final hurdle, beaten 19-12 by Dubai Exiles in the final.
“The lads are looking sharp. The boys are fuming about the Sevens. We threw it away.
“Man for man I think we’re the most talented team in the league. Saki (Naisau) is on fire. It’s just about structure and execution. If the boys get that right on the day, they can beat anyone.”
As Dragons plan to present Samson with a birthday treat, Overton revealed he was sad not to be facing another one of his great friends, Ben Bolger, the former Quins captain who retired due to numerous concussions at the start of the campaign.
“I’m hoping they will let this old dog come off the bench and have a trot too,” added Overton.
“Either way they’ve got quality to burn. It’s one of my best buds and skipper Rosco’s 30th so the boys will want to give him something to celebrate.
“If I do play it will be a shame not playing against the worst rig in rugby, Benny Bolger. That’s a massive loss for them. He’s got the worst chat on the planet but he can inspire like no other on the pitch. It’s two great clubs so it will be a cracker.”
Quins are slightly depleted, especially in the front row where coach Mike McFarlane has had to sacrifice a second team fixture.
Nevertheless he knows this is the type of occasion his squad will rise to.
“It’s a tough weekend against a quality side. It will be a challenge,” said the Englishman.
“It will certainly challenge the quality in depth of the club with so many injuries. The players have been training hard this week and there is a good buzz around the squad as normal, these are the games we play rugby for.
“It’s time for players to step up and put in performances whether they are senior first team players or second team players coming in.
“The extent of the injuries means we aren’t able to field a front row for the second team – never has that happened under my tenure and it is something I am gutted about.
“However, fulfilling a first team fixture comes first and the safety of players is paramount. Of course we want to play, being top of the league, and we offered Dubai Exiles an alternative date as the second team only play alternative weeks, however I don’t think it’s been accepted.”
Injuries or not, Dragons coach Henry Paul knows his side must beat Quins if they are serious about earning success this term.
“We’re largely injury free, just a bit bruised from the Bahrain win, and we expect our hardest match in years, especially after our epic Sevens win against Quins in December,” said the New Zealander, who will stick with near enough the same side that beat Bahrain last week.
“We’re under no illusion of the task in front of us from a well drilled champion side, if we want to win trophies this season here is the test.”
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.”