Kristian Stinson is anticipating the most exciting West Asia title battle in years following Dubai Exiles’ “statement” victory over Jebel Ali Dragons.
Exiles have fought their way back into contention for West Asia Premiership honours in the early weeks of 2018 following successive wins over Abu Dhabi Saracens, Dubai Eagles and Dubai Hurricanes.
What had been missing, however, was a victory over one of the three early-season pacesetters – Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Bahrain and Dragons.
The reverse fixture against Dragons at The Sevens in October saw Henry Paul’s men run out 22-18 winners in the game of the season so far. Exiles also suffered narrow defeats to Quins and Bahrain – downed 18-15 by Bahrain at home and 29-25 at Zayed Sports City in November.
But a bonus point 35-15 win over Dragons in their backyard on Friday will certainly make people sit up and take notice of Jacques Benade’s 2015/16 Asia and UAE champions.
And prop Stinson insists it was mission complete for Exiles.
“It’s definitely a statement win,” said the Northern Irishman. “We went out with a mission and we executed it perfectly. We wanted to dominate them, bully them up front and try and break them early, which we did.
“It sends a message. I don’t know who to or what the message is, but it’s just a case of putting our heads down, focusing and having that belief we can see games through.”
Despite earning a losing bonus point each time as they lost to the early top three by less than seven points in the first half of the season – Exiles lost all three matches by a combined margin of 11 points – Stinson insists the squad didn’t feel they played that well in those defeats.
“For us, it’s really a tale of two seasons,” he said, claiming the 19-12 victory over Dragons in the final of the Gulf Men’s League competition at December’s Dubai Sevens was the turning point.
“In the early games we only were losing by a few points, but we weren’t actually playing that well, weren’t playing as a team, very individual performances.
“But since the Sevens we’ve been galvanised by that and you’re starting to see real team performances and a team coming together in training.
“A few months ago we were a bunch of individuals with a few key partnerships missing and now we’re starting to see those partnerships forming, a bond and an idea of a team, that’s the key.”
Victory saw Exiles storm to the top of the Premiership table on 33 points, three ahead of Quins, who were on a bye week, and four ahead of Dragons.
Bahrain’s 66-0 win at home against Sarries saw them cut the gap to Dragons in third to two points, meaning the top four are separated by just six points, with Bahrain, Quins and Dragons all having played eight games to Exiles’ nine.
Next up for Exiles is a daunting trip to Bahrain in two weeks’ time, while they still have to face Quins at home, and Stinson insists he and his teammates won’t get carried away with Friday’s triumph.
He added: “Don’t get me wrong, Bahrain away is a really difficult fixture and we have to step it up again to get close to them. Louie (Tonkin, Bahrain coach) and his boys at home is a daunting prospect, then we finish with Quins and Sarries, so it’s not an easy run-in.
“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it the hard way. Last night was good, it gives us self-belief and it’s great for team spirit and morale. It really is all to play for, the most exciting competition for years as come the final week I reckon four teams could still be in with a chance to win it.”
The competitors headed into the fixture knowing victory would be enough to claim first place as Abu Dhabi Harlequins had a bye week, with extra spice being added by memories of Exiles’ controversial triumph against Dragons in the Dubai Sevens Gulf Men’s League final.
All the ingredients were in place then for another classic to match October’s reverse fixture, a thriller which Dragons won 22-18. But Exiles dominated from the off, bursting into a 19-10 half-time lead which they never looked like losing on their way to a fourth-successive victory.
Tries for Exiles came from Gio Fourie, Tomas Sackmann, Danny Waddy and Jaen Botes. Durandt Gerber was also lethal with the boot, kicking three conversions and penalties. For the vanquished, Scott Hayes and Morgan Ward crossed over – James Love got a penalty and a conversion.
“It was a good win and a hard-fought victory,” said Exiles club captain Kristian Stinson. “We dominated them up front very early on.
“I think we thoroughly deserved the victory and even they said we outclassed them.”
Dragons coach Henry Paul reflected on a frustrating 80 minutes for his side.
He said: “We were architects of our own demise. Penalties really hurt us, they’ve got a good kicker and a good set-piece.
“They deserved their tries and we just go back to the drawing board.
“We’ve not played well in the last few weeks and still got those wins. We weren’t getting those this time last year.”
Elsewhere, Bahrain inflicted a brutal 66-0 thumping on Saracens to end a run of back-to-back Premiership losses in the last fortnight.
Dubai Hurricanes claimed local bragging rights against bottom-placed Dubai Eagles courtesy of a 36-23 bonus-point victory.
Ross Samson insists the pain and controversy of losing the Dubai Sevens final to Dubai Exiles has been firmly shunted to the back of the minds of Jebel Ali Dragons’ players as the two behemoths prepare to clash in yet another barnstorming West Asia Premiership fixture on Friday.
The reverse fixture in October was the game of the WAP season so far, and their meeting in the Gulf Men’s League final in December was also one for the ages as Exiles upset the odds to win a first Dubai Sevens title in 11 years.
They also upset Dragons in other ways, with Jebel Ali lodging a complaint with tournament organisers after discovering Exiles allegedly rolled on two extra substitutes.
And, just when it seemed the Premiership was set to settle down after a monumental three weeks of fixtures between title-chasing trio Dragons, Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain, up pops this fixture.
Two back-to-back defeats for Bahrain has seen Exiles vault back into the reckoning for silverware, and with the added needle between the two teams, this could be another fiery clash.
Despite the two recent spectacles and the furore over the Sevens, Dragons skipper Samson insists his side are over their disappointment.
“We have put the Sevens out of our mind now, they were the deserved winner as they scored more points than us,” said the Scottish scrum-half.
“We have a very clear set of goals now that we are working towards.
“I think both teams have played a lot of rugby since the last game and have improved, so it should be an interesting game.
“They are a quality side who are very physical and will pose a different threat from our last game against Quins.”
Exiles stormed into the 2017/18 season with big wins against Dubai Eagles and Dubai Hurricanes, but Jacques Benade’s men came unstuck against the top trio – losing to all three by a combined total of just 11 points as they slipped out of title contention.
But three straight wins have seen Exiles surge back into the picture, coupled with two Bahrain defeats. Following their win against Canes last week they cut the gap to Dragons in second place to a point, while they trail leaders Quins by just two.
And Northern Irish lock Stephen Ferguson said their recent form and the Sevens triumph has re-installed belief in the 2015/16 Asia champions.
“It’s a massive, massive game,” said Ferguson.
“Dragons away is always a big game. And this year especially, they owe us one after we beat them at the Dubai Sevens. And the last game at home we scored a late try that was disallowed, so that’ll be fresh in our minds.
“For us, those three defeats combined (to the top three) were by a total of 10 points, so it’s all to play for.
“It’s a season of two halves. This half, we are ready. We already have three wins this year and we will be looking to make it four. Not only are we going to challenge, after that Sevens win, we have the confidence to try and win everything.”