Head coach Mike McFarlane praises Abu Dhabi Harlequins after UAE Premiership Cup final win

Denzil Pinto 17/03/2018
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We are the champions: Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Abu Dhabi Harlequins head coach Mike McFarlane lauded his team for their fine efforts after they clinched the UAE Premiership Cup with a hard-fought 28-25 victory over Dubai Exiles on Friday night.

There have already been two epic encounters between the two sides in the competition this season with Quins winning 29-25 at home before Exiles gained revenge at The Sevens with a 30-27 triumph. And Friday’s match at Zayed Sports City was no different.

Andrew Semple, Phil Brady and Siri Laddidi were the try-scorers for Quins as they bounced back from missing out on the West Asia Premiership Cup to Jebal Ali Dragons last week.

It was their second trophy of the season following their West Asia Champions League triumph and McFarlane had nothing but praise for his players.

“I’m absolutely delighted for us to win the final,” said McFarlane. “It was a tough attritional game against a very strong side. With the injuries we have faced this season to bag trophy number two this season is a massive achievement and is testament to the players and support staff.

“When we had the ball we were excellent. Defensively we held our shape and structure, something we’ve looked at closely. Our set piece was brilliant and gave us an excellent platform. It was a physical contest and one the boys relished.”

The teams will meet again twice over the next month – first in the West Asia Cup semi-final and then the UAE Premiership decider.

While McFarlane will be wary of a backlash from Exiles, he believes the victory will help them in good stead for the rest of the season.

“We always have confidence in what we do but of course it will help build on it further,” he said. “We have a huge few weeks to go and all the boys will be pushing hard to achieve everything possible.”

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UAE players left 'bitterly disappointed' after Asia Rugby Championship withdrawal

Matt Jones 16/03/2018
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UAE rugby performance manager Apollo Perelini.

UAE rugby players have been left “bitterly disappointed” by the news that the country has withdrawn from the Asia Rugby Championship this summer – in a move which casts doubt on the very future of the international side.

The news, while shocking, is made even more incredible by the fact no reason has been given. But confirmation was relayed to the Emirates’ big clubs on Monday by UAE rugby performance manager Apollo Perelini, who revealed that “due to circumstances out of my control”, the UAE men’s will not compete in the ARC’s Division I tournament, scheduled to be played in the Philippines from June 24-30.

The UAE have improved significantly under the guidance of former dual code Samoa international Perelini, who has dragged them up to 70 in the World Rugby rankings – the highest position they have occupied since forming their own union in 2012.

Perelini added to the mystery surrounding the decision taken by the UAE Rugby Federation, by telling Sport360: “I can’t make any comments regarding the issue.”

It leaves Division I to be contested by Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines later this year and leaves us questioning just what the future holds for UAE rugby at international level, with such massive strides made under Perelini.

They lost every single game in Malaysia a year ago as they competed in Asia Rugby’s second tier for the first time since relegation in 2014. But Perelini has harvested a supremely talented crop of expatriate and Emirati talent – who were spirited in defeats to hosts Malaysia (36–22), Sri Lanka (33–17) and the Philippines (34–26) in Ipoh.

Despite finishing bottom of the group, the UAE were spared relegation and were set for another crack at that trio, with many of last year’s squad left upset by the UAE RF’s decision.

“I don’t know the details as to what’s gone on and the reasons why but we’re bitterly disappointed,” said Abu Dhabi Harlequins fly-half Luke Stevenson, who made his UAE debut last May.

“I just know that myself and a number of lads who toured last summer were massively looking forward to making up for those results (if selected) and it’s a big shame that we won’t be able to do so.”

Apollo Perelini.

Perelini coaches his UAE charges

Dubai Hurricanes skipper Dave Knight was another player hoping to put things right in Manila.

“Obviously it’s disappointing as I know the squad wanted to put things right this year,” said the UAE-born flanker.

“It didn’t really click last year and with suspensions and injuries we suffered. There are some very good players that would have been eligible this year so that would only have strengthened the squad. For lots of players it’s carrot at the end of the season for playing well.”

Although their opponents’ superior fitness levels eventually told last year, the UAE’s prospects were severely hampered by injuries to key players and suspensions.

But the annual influx of talented players into the domestic game has Dubai Eagles fly-half Sean Carey believing he and his colleagues could have closed the gap in 2018.

“All the lads were fizzing for another go at it after the disappointment of last year,” said the ex-Ireland Under-20s star.

“Looking back on the games last year we really weren’t that far off, some injuries and suspensions really stung us over the week.

“We felt we had potentially an even stronger team this year, obviously some key players have since retired but overall the quality of rugby has been getting better every year.

“The local lads that were involved last year definitely improved throughout the campaign as they were learning from some very experienced expats.”

And with the ultimate goal of improving UAE rugby as a whole, Carey is concerned this will take the UAE back several steps.

“I do feel that UAE need to be playing in these big competitions in order to grow rugby in the region,” he said.

“They should be trying to align their growth strategy the same way that Hong Kong do, they also have a strong expat community, it’s the same with Singapore.

“The local community and whole country would really get behind rugby more if they have a UAE team competing at the highest levels in Asia.

“In Spain rugby has now exploded due to them being so close to the World Cup and their team is made up of quite a few French-born players, so it can only have a positive effect down the line.

“I hope that it doesn’t have an adverse effect on the West Asia Premiership. A lot of lads really push the standard of the league with the goal of being recognised and having a chance to be selected by their adopted nation.

“There is a huge pool of talented players and coaches in UAE that can really help bring the standards of rugby to the next level.

“However, we must respect the federation’s decision on this. At the end of the day we all just want to see the sport grow in the region and both the clubs and country need to work together doing it.”

Instead of competing in the ARC, Perelini has scheduled a tour involving Gibraltar playing in the UAE next month, with the hope that three friendlies and one unofficial Test match can be arranged against his side.

Gibraltar will look to warm up for the UAE game against Dubai Exiles and Dubai Eagles, followed by a Premiership Barbarians (ineligible players) game as the penultimate warm-up fixture ahead of the April 27 clash with the UAE.

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Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Dubai Exiles set for the latest installment of their enthralling rivalry

Matt Jones 14/03/2018
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Dubai Exiles' Stephen Ferguson on the charge in his side's 29-25 loss to Abu Dhabi Harlequins in November.

Craig Nutt admits Abu Dhabi Harlequins can’t afford to dwell in despair after they relinquished their grip on the West Asia Premiership last week – with the latest installment of their rivalry with Dubai Exiles taking place on Friday.

The two foes clash in the UAE Premiership Cup final – a new competition for the 2017/18 season, akin to the West Asia Premiership Cup.

And with Friday’s final, a semi-final in the West Asia Cup and UAE Premiership decider all to look forward to in the coming month, there’s still plenty of silverware to play for, and Nutt admits Quins must pick themselves up.

“To be honest the game last weekend was out of our hands and we just had to do our job which we did,” the Welshman said of the Premiership’s grand finale.

Quins beat Dubai Eagles but saw their hopes of retaining their title dashed as Jebel Ali Dragons gained a thrilling bonus point win in Bahrain, which gave them the title by just a point.

“We’re really looking forward to this weekend. It should be a really good game like the previous two meetings.”

A thrilling finale to the Premiership has made for a magnificent start to 2018 domestically, with four teams battling for the title meaning every week has brought some exciting showdowns.

Craig Nutt (r) celebrates a try for old side Saracens against Quins in 2014/15.

Craig Nutt (r) celebrates a try for old side Saracens against Quins in 2014/15.

And showdown is a fitting word to describe the relationship Quins and Exiles enjoy with one another.

Dragons may have been crowned Premiership champions, but it is Quins and Exiles who have been the UAE’s leading two teams in the intervening years between Dragons’ back-to-back trebles.

There have been some epic encounters between the pair – not least their two Premiership encounters this season, with Exiles going down 29-25 at Zayed Sports City in November before exacting revenge at The Sevens in a thrilling 37-30 win last month.

And there will surely be a few more in the coming weeks, with the duo not only facing each other on Friday, but also in the West Asia Cup semi-finals on March 23 and the UAE Premiership final on April 13.

And despite losing their West Asia title to Dragons, Nutt and Quins will relish the chance to still be going for three titles.

“We want to win every game we play in and the next few weeks there are three trophies up for grabs and we will want to win them all if possible,” said the former Abu Dhabi Saracens prop, whose side have the advantage of playing Friday’s final at their home of Zayed Sports City.

“But we know that would take a huge effort from the whole squad but that will be the focus and the target. We are playing the best teams in the region in the next few weeks which all the boys at the club will relish.

“We play Exiles this week and we will focus on that game and then move on to the next one.”

It’s been a frustrating few weeks for Exiles despite leapfrogging Bahrain on the final day a week ago to finish third in the Premiership. They earned a bonus point win but did so via a forfeit from Sarries – the second time the Al Ghazal club pulled out of a fixtures with Exiles this season, meaning the teams never actually faced each other in the Premiership this term.

Jacques Benade is looking forward to putting the Saracens debacle behind him and the club.

Jacques Benade is looking forward to putting the Saracens debacle behind him and the club.

Head coach Jacques Benade admitted he had been forced to bite his tongue at the time, but now he is looking forward to Friday.

“That’s in the past now. Friday’s UAE Premiership Cup final will be a great way of getting game time as last week’s game against Saracens was forfeited, again, and we also had no game the previous week due to a free weekend,” said the South African, who is clearly excited ahead of the final.

“There has been a lot of chat regarding fixtures, how hard it is to keep the continuity going if you play one game, two weekends off and then a game again.

“But the boys are just keen to get out there and play a bit of rugby to be honest, and with a cup to play for, even better. The players really stepped up from January, working really hard on the training pitch and are very exited to be involved in all of these games.

“We have one or two injury issues but are looking forward to a great game of rugby.”

And the South African is hoping the final lives up to the previous Premiership encounters.

“The last match between us was great and to be fair it’s been like that for the last three years so I am sure it will be great again,” said the former Emerging Springboks star.

“I am just so proud of our boys that we are now at the end of the season and we are in two finals and also in the West Asia Cup semi-final.”

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