For all the twists and turns of the 2017/18 season so far, victory for Quins would likely have handed the reigning champions their trophy back – with city rivals Saracens and rock bottom Dubai Eagles their final two opponents.
Instead, Exiles roared to a 37-30 win at The Sevens – although a last-gasp penalty from the visitors secured them a losing bonus point, which means they picked up two as they also scored four tries, so Mike McFarlane’s men are still probably favourites.
Bonus-point wins for the other two title challengers – Jebel Ali Dragons put Sarries to the sword with an 80-0 demolition while Bahrain blitzed Dubai Hurricanes 59-21 – have seen the top four bunched incredibly tightly, just three points separating them all.
And while the others have two games remaining, Exiles only have one. But Jacques Benade’s side can at least be content with securing their place in the UAE Premiership final – Dragons and Quins scrapping to face them.
Big wins this year against Dragons and now Quins have seen Exiles shine when it has mattered. Prop Kristian Stinson insisted their resurgence was sparked by their Dubai Sevens-victory over Dragons in December.
“It all comes back to the Sevens. We win that then boys start getting on and the wins have been through teamwork,” said the Northern Irish prop.
“We lost a lot of games by a few points and now we’re winning them and puling each other through. We’ve gone from last year’s laughing stock to winning the Sevens, being in two finals and claiming a top four spot – so it’s some turnaround.”
As well as making the UAE Premiership final, Exiles secured a berth in the West Asia Cup final a few weeks ago – where they will play Quins – and Friday’s win ensures they could possibly end the season with four trophies.
And it was down to Stinson and his fellow forwards as to why four trophies remains a possibility.
“The forwards stepped up and dominated their pack,” said Stinson, whose team led 24-10 at the break.
It could have been 31-5 had they finished off a move while camped on Quins’ line. But they threw the opportunity away and Quins ran the length of the field to close the gap to 14 points and put the pressure on.
“We went in as underdogs. We haven’t had a good record against them at all recently but I think that gave us motivation,” said Stinson, who was thankful Quins fly-half Luke Stevenson suffered a rare off day.
“They came back into it but Luke missed a lot of kicks, which is very unlike him, (scrum-half Andrew) Semple took over. Then in the second half we were grinding in defence. It was feisty. It was some game. They weren’t at the races first half.”
One forward in-particular who had an impact for Exiles was second row Thomas Sackmann. He scored two tries as an auxiliary winger, after full-back Thinus Steyn pulled out before kick-off with injury.
Dubai Exiles 37 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 30
Jebel Ali Dragons 80 Abu Dhabi Saracens 0
Bahrain 59 Dubai Hurricanes 21
Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Dubai Exiles are set to meet in yet another mouthwatering top-of-the-table clash in the West Asia Premiership – although the protagonists know the door is rapidly closing on anyone who makes a mistake from here on in.
Quins travel to The Sevens for Friday’s game to take on Jacques Benade’s revitalised Exiles – they were defeated in Bahrain last week to end a four-game winning streak.
It should be an intense encounter, with Quins winning 29-25 in the reverse fixture before Christmas at a time when Exiles were not in good form.
And Quins fly-half Luke Stevenson put it simply when he said: “It’s a massive week, which does seem to be the case every week.
“It’s always a tough one against Exiles and they’ve been on a good run of form. The lads are pumped for it and I think we want to go out and show that we deserve to be where we are in the league.”
Exiles counterpart Durandt Gerber is aware another slip this week could spell the end of their title chances.
“The league is tight at the moment and any slip-ups could be costly at this stage,” said the South African.
“We did not do ourselves any favours last weekend in Bahrain with the loss but that’s rugby. I’m looking forward to a good game of rugby. It’s always intense playing Quins and a good game to be part of.”
After a run of three defeats earlier in the season against Quins, Jebel Ali Dragons and Bahrain that saw them slip off the pace of the top three, four wins in a row to start 2018 – including a superb 35-15 victory in the reverse fixture at Dragons – has seen Exiles crash the title party and make it a four-way battle for silverware.
Realistically though, a Quins win on Friday would end the recent high drama between the top four. Win, and win with a bonus point in Dubai, and Quins will maintain their status on top of the standings – with two very winnable home games to finish the season at home to Abu Dhabi Saracens and away at Dubai Eagles.
And coach Mike McFarlane reiterated that this is a “massive week”.
“In such a competitive league the games come thick and fast and this weekend will be no different,” said the Englishman.
“They have an excellent squad and the arrival of Denis Hurley (former Munster player who has become Exiles’ backs coach) has clearly had a huge impact.
“They’ve got a strong set-piece and a good pack which I’m sure they’ll look to use frequently, so it will be a great forward battle. The boys have prepped really well this week and there’s a real focus within the squad, knowing their individual jobs for the team.”
Exiles will especially be keen to bounce back with a win as they have played a game more than the rest of their title rivals and have just one game remaining after Friday.
“There’s a lot at stake,” said Northern Irish forward Stephen Ferguson.
“We’re playing for a home semi (in the West Asia Cup) and bragging rights. The top four is sorted, it’s just about sorting out placings.
“And we know Quins and Dragons have a game in hand so we will want to take maximum points in our last two games, starting with Quins. Quins are a quality side and have awesome finishers from the bench too. So it’ll be an 80 minute affair.”
Elsewhere, Bahrain host Dubai Hurricanes, although you can forgive home coach Louie Tonkin for having one eye on events in Dubai.
And he put it bluntly too, when he said: “If Quins win they are home and dry, if Exiles win we all have a chance.”
The Welshman is wary of a wounded Canes outfit who mathematically made it impossible for themselves to challenge for the West Asia Cup at the end of the season as defeat to Quins left them marooned in fourth place.
“We know Hurricanes can’t qualify for the top four but that makes them a dangerous side, they come with nothing to lose and we’re not taking them lightly,” said Tonkin.
“I’ve said Canes are going to turn someone over this season and we need to make sure it’s not us. We need to get a bonus point win, we need to keep pressure on the teams above us.”
Canes front rower Joe Corcoran stated the whole club is hurting after last week’s disappointing 55-15 defeat to Quins, which also saw Quins advance to the final of the UAE Premiership Cup, where they’ll face Exiles.
“It’s certainly tough to re-group and prepare for the trip to Bahrain given the really disappointing loss to Quins,” he said.
“That said, multiple guys have been given the opportunity to play this weekend so despite the challenge of playing Bahrain away there is a good energy in the group and a strong urge to perform.”
In Friday’s other game, Jebel Ali Dragons will be seeking a bonus-point win at home to struggling Abu Dhabi Saracens.
They are in second place in the table, a point behind Quins, and a maximum win against the side second-bottom is a must if they are to keep the pressure on the title favourites.
But even though they should win comfortably, assistant coach Jonny MacDonald is concentrating on firstly just securing victory.
“It’s pretty clear to us what we have to do for the rest of the season and that’s picking up wins in all of our remaining games and then bonus points as well where we can,” said MacDonald, the former Arabian Gulf international taking joint charge of Dragons with Andy Buist while Henry Paul is helping coach Canada in the Americas Rugby Championship.
“It’s important we focus on getting the win first and then we can worry about the bonus point. We’ve had a good build-up to the game and we are looking forward to it with the boys feeling good and hopefully we can play some good rugby.
“We were disappointed with elements of our game last week against Eagles (Dragons won 57-7), we felt we didn’t control the game for the full 80 so that’s an area we will look to improve on this week against Sarries.”
Sarries will just be happy to get to the end of the campaign intact after a season of strife, but skipper Jonny Taylor is looking forward to getting back to action after a two-week break.
“I think everyone is really eager to get back on the pitch,” said the South African flanker.
“We have a quite a few new players running out as well, which is always good to see. It’s another weekend to go out and build the squad and club.”
Friday’s games (17:00 KO)
Dubai Exiles v Abu Dhabi Harlequins
Bahrain v Dubai Hurricanes
Jebel Ali Dragons v Abu Dhabi Saracens
It seems increasingly likely that an engaging West Asia Premiership title-race is going to come down to the wire following another enthralling weekend of action.
Dubai Exiles were demoted from top spot following a narrow 19-11 defeat in Bahrain – a first defeat in five games – with emphatic wins for Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Jebel Ali Dragons seeing them jump into first and second respectively.
Quins lead the way on 35 points after trouncing Dubai Hurricanes 55-15 at The Sevens, a game which also served as a semi-final for the UAE Premiership Cup – Quins will face Exiles in the final.
They are a point in front of Exiles and head coach Mike McFarlane said: “It’s a good win where our set-piece dominated. It was hot but the depth in quality told with an excellent impact from our bench. Our core skills and patience improved in the second half and we put the game to bed.”
The gap between the top four has been closed from six to four following the weekend, thanks largely to Bahrain’s marginal victory over Jacques Benade’s Exiles.
And coach Louie Tonkin feels the final round of fixtures – when they welcome Dragons on March 9 – will be crucial.
“It’s going to come down to the last game,” said the Welshman.
“There’s some big games left, Quins v Exiles next week is a big one and will play a big part, then it’s us and Dragons in the last round. We’ll end up where we end up.”
Despite all eyes focused firmly on the curtain coming down on the Premiership season in three weeks’ time, Tonkin insists he and his players are trying to stay as focused as possible on one game at a time.
“We’re trying really hard to focus on ourselves, as difficult as it is, taking it one game at a time,” he said.
“We’ve got Canes next week and they’re a very dangerous side, with a great scrum. We’re taking that game as a priority.
“We have to travel then to Eagles but we’re trying to focus on ourselves and not other things. The pleasing thing is Canes can’t catch us now. They’re 11 points behind with two games left so we’re qualified for the West Asia Cup, although we’re desperate for a home semi-final.”
Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn was happy his side got back to winning ways, soaring to a 57-7 bonus point win over Eagles to begin to erase defeat two weeks prior to Exiles.
“The boys looked a lot fresher after a weekend off,” said Quinn.
“It’s important now we go out and win every game and get as many points as we can, both in terms of bonus points and points on the scoreboard. As long as we get that job done, we will end up where we end up.”
And he was impressed with a much-improved Eagles, who will more than likely feel aggrieved at the margin of defeat.
Quinn added: “I think Eagles will be disappointed with their performance because I think they’ve got a lot better and I don’t think they quite deserved the humping they got.
“They’re certainly improving.”