Dubai Exiles Under-18s girls blitzed their opponents by a combined score of 131-79 on a successful three-game tour of the UK earlier this month.
After a highly successful 2016/17 season which included a fixture with Surrey school SGS Filton who toured Dubai, Exiles decided to test their skills against the best available teams in Britain.
Girls rugby in Dubai is rapidly growing but the base of players and clubs is still relatively low so the club predominantly play sevens. On tour, however, Andy Williams’ side decided to play 10s.
Working with a local tour company, Exiles got in touch with schools and clubs from across the UK, requesting strong opposition to benchmark themselves, and UAE girls rugby in general, against the best teams available.
Cobham Rugby Club in Surrey has one of the strongest girl’s sections in the South East and Bristol-based SGS Filton is widely regarded as one of the top UK specialist sports schools, with a strong girls’ rugby heritage.
Nelson, near Cardiff, also includes a number of U18 Welsh players and is considered one of the strongest girls’ club teams in the country.
Having lost to Filton on their tour of Dubai last year, Exiles knew they had set themselves a tough schedule, but the girls committed hard to training and focused on skills development and building a superior level of fitness in preparation.
Weather was a major factor on the tour, with temperatures dropping to as low as three degrees at kick-off. The first game was an evening kick-off, made more challenging by the overnight flight.
The girls landed at 07:30 on Friday, February 9, and played 12 hours later. Understandably, they endured a slow start and conceded an early try, but quickly established themselves with a couple of quick scores.
From that moment on they dominated the game, only conceding tries to Cobham’s play-making No12. They eventually ran out 49-24 winners which was fully representative of Exiles’ control of the match.
It gave the girls belief as they headed to Bristol for what was expected to be the toughest game on tour on February 12.
Filton is a dedicated sports academy based in Bristol, which selects girls specifically for rugby and were previously unbeaten in both 15s and Sevens this season, only losing last season in the final of the Rosslyn Park 7s.
Exiles knew that they would be physical and direct and true to form they started very fast. The game was played over 3x 20-minute periods and after 17 minutes Exiles were 19-0 down.
Their first try, however, seemed to change the game and Exiles’ superior fitness then started to show and, coupled with an increasingly physical defense, they started to dominate.
Injuries eventually led to the game reverting to a sevens format and that further played to the UAE side’s strengths. In a barnstorming game, Exiles came back to win 55-38.
On to Cardiff for a Valentine’s Day clash with Nelson, where the weather conditions worsened still. Thankfully, the game was played on a 4G pitch.
A very physical Nelson team were well organised and exploited Exiles’ handling errors in the rain to score first, but once again the visitors settled into a rhythm with some excellent defence and counter-attacking rugby. The conditions made scoring more difficult, but Exiles eased to a 27-17 win.
Head coach Williams said: “This was the first overseas tour by a girl’s rugby team in Dubai and our aim was to test ourselves and see how we compared to the best available teams in the UK.
“To remain unbeaten against sides of this quality was truly amazing and I could not be prouder of the girls.”
Captain Chloe Williams added: “This past week of rugby has been the most challenging and rewarding experience our team has ever faced.
“As captain I could not be prouder of this talented squad of girls and everything that we achieved on our tour of the UK. Hopefully this success will inspire more girls in Dubai to take up rugby and go on more tours in the future.”
Dubai Exiles 49 Cobham 24
Dubai Exiles 55 SGS Filton 38
Dubai Exiles 27 Nelson 17
Dubai Exiles U18 Girls squad:
Mahia Alfereti, Sammie Dronfield, Hannah Ferguson, Celine Sloan, Michaela Warr, Alexandra Kane, Sophie Shamsuddin, Chloe Williams (C), Caitlin Erlank, Elka MacKinnon, Nada Manni, Asia Stevens, Shauna Clune, Lucy Yendall, Sophie Milward
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