Players embraced each other on the battlefield. The travelling support cheered wildly from the stands. But the man who made it all happen sat hunched on a fence, far from the madding crowd.
For a man who’s had such a huge role to play in their rise, it was odd to see Abu Dhabi Saracens president Dave Jackson watching his team’s epic West Asia Cup triumph isolated from the rest of the celebrating masses.
In a thrilling encounter, fit for any final, Sarries claimed the first trophy of their four-year existence last Friday by beating Doha 26-20.
As fans and players tried to come to terms with a defining moment for the club, Jackson dropped his head to his chest, remaining seated, almost as if he was unable to lift himself to his feet after what had been an exhausting and emotionally draining match, and that was just as a spectator.
Great to hear @ADSaracens won the West Asia Cup Final today. Dan Vickers working his magic once again.
— Alex Goode (@Alex_goode0) March 20, 2015
The Saracens playing shirt that he wore on the sidelines was soaked in sweat, as if he had played the full 80 minutes himself.
He may not have taken to the field but Jackson has done as much as the squad of players that won the match last Friday to get the club where it is today – more so.
“I’m speechless. Absolutely speechless,” said Jackson, who was visibly emotional pitchside as he tried to comprehend what the club he started from nothing four years ago has achieved.
“Four years, West Asia champions. It’s mind blowing. I’ve been here from the start and I’m struggling to put it into words. It’s amazing. Lots of tears.
— Dougie Steele (@steeleDR) March 21, 2015
“Four tries after going behind. Doha were up for it but I think maybe we wanted it more. There was a lot of heart out there today and I’m very proud of the club.
“The team put in an amazing
effort and the supporters who flew in today I can’t thank them enough.”
An epic encounter deserved an epic finale. And it got it.
After going behind to Doha for the fourth time in the match, Sarries were forced to soak up unrelenting home pressure for 15 minutes.
Leading 20-19, it seemed inevitable that the hosts would score again, a fatal blow you feared the battle-weary visitors would not come back from had it been delivered.
— Scott Safety EMEA (@ScottSafetyEMEA) March 21, 2015
But it never came. Instead, Sarries found the energy to surge up field for one final attack. They were denied initially when Doha earned a turnover.
But an incredible final effort pushed the home pack off their own ball from the resulting scrum, Rhuwane Pienaar acting quickest from the next play to dart over for the game’s definitive score.
There were still a tense few minutes left in which Sarries had to somehow remain composed as Doha looked for a score that would take them ahead for the fifth time.
After what must have seemed an eternity, the final whistle blew and Sarries, and Jackson, had done it.
Player/coach Ali Thompson said: “The club has come a long way in four years.”
They certainly have and Jackson is the main reason for that.
Despair, exhaustion, adrenaline, desire, resilience and finally euphoria – Abu Dhabi Saracens certainly rode the emotional rollercoaster but they are the champions of West Asia.
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In a game fit for any final, where both sides played their roles superbly, Sarries battled like warriors to claim a thrilling 26-20 win in Doha.
The game had it all – end to end action, a hatful of tries, slick passing, ferocious hits, mistakes, tension.
At the end of a pulsating 80 minutes, the men from the UAE capital had announced their arrival as a true force in Gulf rugby.
— Saracens UAE (@SaracensUAE) March 20, 2015
Ali Thompson’s team were forced to defend for large periods of time in both halves, as the home side’s lethal backs threatened to run amok. That Sarries came back from going behind on four separate occasions speaks volumes for the manner in which they played this epic encounter.
The visitors started like a team at ease in their surroundings before suddenly falling behind to a try that demonstrated Doha’s impressive array of talent from one to 15.
No8 Dilanka Wijesekera brushed aside a weak tackle and burst into space. When the cover came, the back-rower somehow flicked a sumptuous one-handed offload to the supporting Wade Lotter and the hooker bullocked his way over from 20 yards.
Sarries responded immediately.
The rolling maul did its job from a lineout and Doha simply couldn’t deal with it, pit bull Gio Fourie the benefactor, with Elliott Reeder converting to edge Sarries ahead 7-5.
Doha’s Greg Evans kicked his side back in front just before the break with a penalty, but it was the missed kicks that really cost the hosts dearly, with 10 points going begging.
They even changed kickers midway through the half but Stefano Hunt was also off target with a penalty as Sarries stuck in there.
They retook the lead on the stroke of half-time, Fourie responding with a carbon copy of the first try.
Reeder arrowed a kick into the corner and Alex Gonzalez’s catch and drive was finished off by the South African, who dived over a pile of bodies to touch down.
It was an absolute joy & privilege to cover this game. It had everything. Tries, slick skills, bone-shuddering tackles, end to end action
— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) March 20, 2015
Sam Spencer put Doha back in the lead minutes into the second half as the hosts played Sarries at their own power game, the prop bulldozing over from a lineout to put his side 13-12 ahead.
Again, Sarries refused to lie down and were back in front minutes later. The two teams seemed to swap roles as Reeder cut through midfield and opened his legs towards the posts. He was caught but had Stephen Hamilton in support and the centre had a simple finish under the posts
The next 15 minutes were all Doha and when Evans, so feeble with the boot, cut a flawless line to dive over under the posts, Doha led 20-19.
But a knock-on gave Sarries a reprieve. They worked their way into Doha territory but everyone on the ground thought the GT6 champions had done enough when Aaron Palmer’s men forced a turnover.
However, an incredible forward push from the resulting scrum forced Doha over their line and gave Sarries their own scrum five metres out. Replacement scrum-half Rhuwane Pienaar caught the home forwards cold to dart over and silence the partisan home crowd.
Reeder nailed a nerveless conversion to put Sarries 26-20 ahead.
— BounceBack Physio (@BBPhysio_UAE) March 20, 2015
There was still work to do and Doha threw everything at Sarries.
But finally, after what seemed an eternity, the final whistle sent triumphant Sarries into delirium.
“We’re getting an earlier flight to Abu Dhabi and we’ll take the trophy back with us and celebrate in our home town,” said Ali Thompson
— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) March 20, 2015
They are Gulf Top Six champions, are playing at home and beat Abu Dhabi Saracens a few weeks ago – but Doha head coach Aaron Palmer believes the West Asia Cup final is finely poised.
The New Zealander knows Doha hold the upper hand but believes his team underestimate their opponents at their peril.
“I wouldn’t say we’re outright favourites, it’s one-all in games. Playing at home is obviously an advantage, and one we’re happy to have,” he said.
“Saracens are a good team and have shown immense consistency all year. They have a very good forward pack – they’re bloody monsters – and will use that to their advantage, but they have a great combination at scrum-half and fly-half and their centres are dangerous. There’s been lots of talk about them buying in players, but we’re all expats so we’ve all been brought in from somewhere.”
Expecting quite a crowd… pic.twitter.com/tuX4oe3do0
— doharugby (@doharugby) March 16, 2015
Doha beat Dubai Hurricanes in the final of the West Asia Cup four years ago but had never won the GT6 until this year.
“Winning the GT6 is pretty prestigious. We’re pretty happy with that and now we’re hoping to top the season off,” said Palmer. Second row Liam Griffin returns from concussion and No8 Tom Booth should recover from a knee injury, with the GT6 champions at virtually full strength.
Friday will also be a poignant day for Doha stalwart Liam Frost, who will be playing his last game for the club. Despite declaring himself a Manchester lad, having been born in Salford, and a Sale Sharks fan, Frost’s family have lived in the Gulf for over 30 years.
The former England schoolboy international, 31, is calling it a day after the final to concentrate on his young family.
“Liam’s a class player, and probably could and should have played Premiership rugby,” said Palmer. “He’s been at Doha since he was eight, he is Doha. This place means a lot to him so it would be nice to send him off with a win.”