Jebel Ali Dragons go into final West Asia Premiership weekend as underdogs despite being top, with Abu Dhabi Harlequins favourites

Matt Jones 7/03/2018
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Dragons go to Exiles knowing a bonus point win will hand them the West Asia Premiership title.

His team are in a strange position. Top of the table heading into the final game of the league season, yet knowing they are still underdogs to lift the West Asia Premiership title and erase four years of relative hurt.

But for Jebel Ali Dragons and Ian Overton in-particular, this is why you play the game of rugby, to stand up and be counted in the most testing of circumstances.

Dragons go into the final Friday of the Premiership season one point ahead of defending champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins.

Yet, while Mike McFarlane takes his men just over 100km down the road to Dubai to take on the fledgling Eagles, Overton and Co take flight to Bahrain, knowing that realistically only a bonus point win against a team that has lost just two of 11 games all term and are undefeated at home in 14 months will deliver them a first major title in four seasons.

If Dragons win but not with a bonus point and Quins earn five points, the title comes down to points difference and if the teams still can’t be separated, the team with the most points scored will be crowned champions.

Quins currently lead on both fronts, posting a points difference of +283 compared to Dragons’ +272, while having scored 464 points to Dragons’ 451.

Whatever the outcome, this has been the most enthralling title battle in recent UAE rugby history, with just five points separating the top four teams.

And even though only Quins or Dragons will realistically lift the Premiership trophy, there is still plenty for third-placed Bahrain and Dubai Exiles, in fourth, to play for – with all four teams also yearning for a top-two finish and a home semi-final in the West Asia Cup.

“Bahrain away is probably the toughest fixture on the calendar anyway, let alone the final game of the season with the title on the line,” said UAE international Overton.

“It’s a massive game and the lads are absolutely buzzing for it, this is why you play this sport, for moments such as this.”

Dragons' Ian Overton is relishing a trip to Bahrain with the title on the line.

Dragons’ Ian Overton is relishing a trip to Bahrain with the title on the line.

Dragons’ task is made more arduous by the fact they’re missing star Fijian centre Saki Naisau, but that won’t deter a side who welcome back head coach Henry Paul, after his stint helping friend and former Wales international Kingsley Jones coach Canada at the Americas Rugby Championship.

“We’re missing Saki which is a massive blow but we’ve got some old Welsh fella who’s still got some magic left in him,” added Overton, who will be reunited in Bahrain with an old pal of his own, home coach Louie Tonkin.

The pair represented Wales in their youth at basketball and will likely reminisce about the old days, once the formality of the championship is decided.

And Tonkin insists maintaining their “fortress” is of paramount importance to the home team.

“We know the situation. We have to be extremely, extremely lucky to win the league. We need a miracle really,” said the former Cardiff University head coach.

“Quins are likely to get the job done and we still need to beat Dragons. We’ve said all year that one of our biggest goals was to achieve a home semi-final. We haven’t lost at home for 14 months and it’s turned into a fortress for us so we’re absolutely desperate to win.

“It’s a great goal for us and a huge challenge because we know Dragons can win the league with a bonus point win, so it’s a deciding match.

“It’s a must win game. We know if we lose we probably finish fourth and will have to go to Dragons or Quins away in the cup, which is a tough task, so we’re dedicated to winning this game and doing whatever it takes to do so.”

As Dragons have fallen by the wayside in the last four seasons since winning back-to-back trebles in 2012/13 and 2013/14, Quins have risen to prominence.

They won an unprecedented five trophies a year ago although dreams of a repeat were dashed when Exiles won the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens in December.

They have been the team to beat this year, but the fact they go into the final weekend as favourites is no mean feat considering the players they’ve lost to injuries, forced retirement and simply leaving the UAE for pastures new in 2017/18 – with McFarlane paying tribute to the 47 players that have represented the first team throughout the campaign.

West Asia Premiership Table2

“It’s the last Premiership game and what a great job every player has done for the club this season so far,” said the Englishman.

“We have demonstrated incredible depth at the club in a quality league and to be in this position at this stage is testament to all their hard work.

“We have had 47 players play for the first team. Things don’t change as we are carrying several injuries but we look to push hard in the remaining game against an ambitious Eagles side.

“We are disappointed the title isn’t in our complete control but as ever we will go out and concentrate on putting in a performance as a squad of 22.”

In stark contrast it’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Emirates’ newest team, Eagles, formed just weeks before the start of the season. They predictably struggled early on, especially with the top four pulling clear from the rest of the field in terms of quality.

They tasted victory in just their second game of the season against fellow strugglers Abu Dhabi Saracens in September.

And even though defeat in the reverse fixture saw them drop to the bottom of the table, Eagles leapfrogged Sarries following a point deduction for forfeiting a fixture, and will avoid the league’s wooden spoon unless Sarries conjure victory against top two-chasing Exiles.

“It’s been a tough season but it’s finally coming to an end and I’m very proud of how far the lads have come since we started in August,” said Eagles fly-half Sean Carey, also one of the main men behind the club’s emergence.

“We’ve gone from nine players at our first session to two full men’s squads, three women’s teams and over 100 kids in seven to eight months.

“The lads have learned so much about the level of the Premiership and have been playing some really enjoyable rugby at times.  It’s all about finishing strong and using the summer window to regroup and come back with a bang next season.

“We are well aware that Quins are going for a number of titles against us and will be targeting that important bonus point; our job will be to make it as hard as possible for them to achieve that.”

Former Sarries star Jaen Botes heads back to Al Ghazal with Exiles.

Former Sarries star Jaen Botes heads back to Al Ghazal with Exiles.

There will be something of a reunion at Al Ghazal on Friday as Sarries welcome Exiles, with several former players returning to the capital. One of them is Exiles and UAE Number 8 Jaen Botes, who said: “I’m excited about this one as I’m heading back to old Al Ghazal. It will be nice to run out on that pitch again, I’ve been looking forward to this game all season so can’t wait for it.”

A maximum five-point win for Exiles will take them onto 43 points and then it will be up to fate as to where in the table they finish. But Botes insists they can only worry about doing their job.

“We need to go there and just play to our structures and ensure we play the way we have done since the start of the second half of the season,” said the South African.

“We haven’t played Saracens yet as they forfeited the game last time around so it will be nice to get a run out against them. It is important we stick to our structures and I’m sure we will do a good job.

“I’m sure they are just as up for it as they will want to finish their season on a high. One step at a time for us, hopefully it will work out for us.”

Fixtures:

Friday

18:00 Bahrain v Jebel Ali Dragons

19:00 Dubai Eagles v Abu Dhabi Harlequins

19:00 Abu Dhabi Saracens v Dubai Exiles

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Jebel Ali Dragons winning West Asia Premiership would be 'Roy of the Rovers' fairytale, says chairman Stuart Quinn

Matt Jones 4/03/2018
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Paul Hart has been through the good times and bad with Dragons.

Stuart Quinn believes if Jebel Ali Dragons lift the West Asia Premiership title next weekend it will be a “Roy of the Rovers” type fairytale.

Dragons scaled new heights of UAE rugby when they won back-to-back trebles in 2012/13 and 2013/14 to cement themselves as the dominant force in the Emirates.

But they have fallen back in recent seasons and only began something of a resurgence when former England rugby union and New Zealand league star Henry Paul took charge in the summer of 2016.

Dragons roared back to something approaching their best last season, making the UAE Premiership final where they were beaten by Abu Dhabi Harlequins. But it is in 2017/18 where their growth can really be measured as they have gone toe to toe with Quins, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain in a thrilling four-way battle for silverware.

A 60-23 win over Dubai Hurricanes on Friday sent Dragons to the top of the table with one final round of Premiership fixtures remaining. They are two points above reigning champions Quins although Mike McFarlane’s men will still be favourites to retain their title next Friday as they travel to Dubai to face the league’s bottom side Eagles in their final fixture.

Dragons, meanwhile, also take flight but have an altogether more arduous test ahead of them as they must win in Bahrain. With Quins likely to win and record a maximum victory, McFarlane’s men should earn five points and go three clear – thus nothing but victory will do for Dragons.

“It’s all down to next week now. It’s basically a cup final to be crowned West Asia champions. It’s a great finale to the season,” said Dragons chairman Quinn.

“Roy of the Rovers stuff is needed next weekend but we are that kind of club I suppose.”

Victory to set up next week’s tantalising finale was secured in style at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence, although Quinn felt the margin of defeat was harsh on Hurricanes.

West Asia Premiership Table2

“The boys were very smart in their approach and did what was needed,” he said. “Nico Volovola was unplayable at times and James Love ran the game impeccably. Canes didn’t deserve the scoreline. It was a closer game than that.”

UAE international prop Paul Hart has been with Dragons for eight years so has been part of the good times and bad, and he praised the impact of coaches Jonny MacDonald and Andy Buist in the absence of Paul – who is away helping friend and former Wales international Kingsley Jones coaching Canada at the Americas Rugby Championship, although he will be back for the crucial Bahrain clash.

“Huge praise needs to go to Andy and Jonny for leading Henry Paul’s absence over the last three weeks,” said Hart.

“We have scored 196 points in the last three games so thanks to some brilliant coaching.

“We are very pleased to beat a very competitive Canes team and also get a bonus point to keep our title chase alive. In my eight years here we have always had close battles with the Canes, so to score 60 points shows the class we have individually and form we are on collectively.”

Results – Thursday

Abu Dhabi Harlequins 80 Abu Dhabi Saracens 0

Results – Friday

Dubai Eagles 8 Bahrain 54

Jebel Ali Dragons 60 Dubai Hurricanes 23

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Jebel Ali Dragons hope to take firm hold of West Asia Premiership title destiny

Matt Jones 2/03/2018
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Dragons' scrum-half Ross Samson.

Jebel Ali Dragons will technically move into pole position for the West Asia Premiership title on Friday with a bonus point win over rivals Dubai Hurricanes.

A win for Jonny MacDonald and Andy Buist’s men at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence will lift them above Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who climbed back to the top following a convincing 80-0 hammering of city rivals Saracens on Thursday night.

Mike McFarlane’s men are three points ahead but have played a game more, so a maximum win for Dragons will see them go back to the top by two points.

If all goes to plan, then the battle for the title will come down to the final weekend of the season next Friday and all eyes will be on Bahrain as they host Dragons.

Quins end their season in Dubai at rock-bottom Eagles, where they will be expected to get a bonus point win. If that happens and Dragons win this Friday, only a win will do in Bahrain. A win alone will likely see them and Quins finish level at the top of the table, with a bonus point victory likely to see them crowned champions.

Quins lost 37-30 at Dubai Exiles a week ago but a penalty in the final minute earned them a losing bonus point, which added to their try-scoring bonus point in the same game, looks like it will play a vital role in the destiny of the title.

There’s still a lot of rugby left to play though and, for now, Dragons are just concentrating on Canes.

“I hope it’s blue skies and sun for us and rain for anyone else who’s playing and needs wins,” said Dragons skipper Ross Samson ahead of the Canes clash.

“It’s a local derby for us, Canes are a great bunch of boys and we always have good games against them. We just want to keep playing our brand of rugby as we are having loads of fun doing it.”

Canes know they have already secured fifth spot and coach Mike Wernham says they will try and see out the season in as professional a manner as possible.

“Complete the fixture list and continue to play with pride, that’s our aim,” said Wernham.

“We’re hoping for a good performance after narrowly losing at home with such a strong start from us. It’s the last couple of games now and we want to finish the season on a high.

“We will hope to catch Dragons off guard but know they have a lot of quality in their side. We have a couple of weeks off before the Trophy final so will be holding nothing back.”

Exiles have a bye this week and will hope to crash the title party next week when they end their season at Sarries, although the best they can hope for is a likely home West Asia Cup semi-final by finishing second.

Bahrain will go a point behind Quins with a bonus point win over Eagles at Dubai Sports City on Friday, although they too will likely be scrapping for a home semi-final even if they score maximum victories in their final two games – the last one at home to Dragons next week.

Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin.

Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin.

“All we can concentrate on is controlling our controllables,” said coach Louie Tonkin, whose side are currently fourth but with games in hand.

“We can’t have any control on any of the other results, it’s out of our hands so all we can focus on is performing as well as we can and get the results we can and seeing where that puts us at the end of the season.

“We respect Eagles. They came to us before Christmas and ran us close so it won’t be an easy game. We’re going to their place so we know it’ll be a tough game. But we have to go there with the mindset of getting maximum points.”

Fixtures – Friday 19:00

Dubai Eagles v Bahrain

Jebel Ali Dragons v Dubai Hurricanes

Result – Thursday

Abu Dhabi Harlequins 80 Abu Dhabi Saracens 0

West Asia Premiership table

Team                                   P     W     L     D     PF     PA     BP     Pts

AD Quins                           11     8     2      1      464    181     8      42

JA Dragons                       10     8     2     0      391    156     7       39

Dubai Exiles                     11      7     4     0      398    162    10     38

Bahrain                             10     7      2     1      332     149     6      36

Dubai Hurricanes            11     4     7     0      224     332     4      20

AD Saracens                     11     1     9      0      70       508     1       5

Dubai Eagles                    10     1     9      0      93       488     1      5

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