The domestic rugby landscape in the UAE looks more competitive than ever following Dubai Exiles’ return to prominence in 2015-16.
Under the leadership of new director of rugby Jacques Benade, the region’s oldest club will celebrate half a century as UAE Premiership and West Asia Championship (WAC) champions.
That is something that would not have looked likely as the season drew to a close 12 months ago.
Exiles finished fifth in last season’s UAE Premiership, which meant they failed to qualify for the coveted Gulf Top Six, left alone instead to languish in the second-tier Gulf Conference.
Although they won that competition, making it back-to-back victories, it was a sign of how far they’d fallen.
Their descent was halted with Benade’s arrival although their journey back to the top has been rather rapid.
They played out a season-long duel with Abu Dhabi Harlequins for silverware this season, which was fascinating from start to finish.
The 22-18 win for Quins at Zayed Sports City in October was the game of the season, although there were many other encounters that pushed it close.
However, for sheer drama, it could not be beaten. And, while much better was predicted following Benade’s arrival from Ireland and a clutch of new faces, that game signified the moment that they were to be taken seriously.
Although the overriding feeling following pushing Exiles so close will be disappointment for Quins, it’s been an impressive first season in charge for Mike McFarlane.
He is a fierce competitor and will not be content with claiming the Gulf Men’s League title at December’s Dubai Sevens.
They were only halted from making a clean sweep of domestic trophies by Exiles, which should ensure for an even fiercer feud in 2016-17.
Dubai Exiles RFC. West Asia Champions and UAE Premiership Champions. Job done in great style & with good blokes... pic.twitter.com/rKSeyD6VQb— Mike Wolff (@mikewolff1967) 8 April 2016
The final act of 2014-15 saw Abu Dhabi Saracens crowned champions of west Asia.
They had to play second fiddle to the Quins and Exiles rivalry this season but, again, with a new coaching team at the helm, Stephen Hamilton and Craig Nutt can be hugely satisfied with a campaign in which the club stood on its own for the first time since its 2011 inception.
A few more bodies and a bit more pace, combined with a season under of management under the duo’s belts, will do wonders for the men from Al Ghazal.
Looking back on the season will not provide largely happy memories for Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Hurricanes or Al Ain Amblers, but there is much for all three to look forward to.
And that's it. The title and double secured. Exiles romp home. What a superb season in their 50th year— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) 8 April 2016
Back-to-back treble-winning seasons for the men from Jebel Ali in 2012-13 and 2013-14 seem a long way away following two campaigns of struggle, but Dragons will be buoyed by former New Zealand and England dual code international Henry Paul’s arrival in July.
That will surely ruffle a few feathers and see Dragons propelled back towards the elite.
Reaching the semi-finals at the Dubai Sevens promised to reignite their season, but Dragons eventually fell to disappointing fifth and seventh-placed finishes in the UAE Premiership and WAC respectively.
Dubai Hurricanes’ malaise continued.
Whereas James Ham’s side often showed they can live with the biggest sides in the Gulf, pushing Doha and Quins close in the WAC, they rather ambled through another season, finishing fourth in the Premiership and fifth in the WAC with a combined record of seven wins in 18 games.
They will be hoping for a shot in the arm in time for next season.
Speaking of Amblers and 2015-16 provided the men from the Garden City with a rude awakening.
They won 15 games as they claimed last season’s UAE Conference and steamrollered into the Premiership – this season they won just once in 18 Premiership and WAC games.
Andrew Rouvi will be boosted by his side’s performance in 2016. They claimed a solitary win against Muscat in the WAC and played some thrilling attacking rugby, scoring four tries in six of their eight WAC matches. They will be hopeful of better things to come next season.
Overall, the Premiership proved its continuing strength this season, which will be evidenced when UAE rugby performance manager Apollo Perelini picks his 25-man Test squad for upcoming Asia Rugby Championship games in Uzbekistan next month being made up entirely of Premiership players.
The other all-English semi-final was settled on Saturday after Saracens posted a 29-20 victory over Northampton and Wasps saw off Exeter 25-24.
Racing roared out to an early lead at home in Paris thanks to a Carter penalty and conversion of Argentinian winger Juan Imhoff’s intercept try.
But Toulon responded with a well-taken try from flanker Charles Ollivon converted by Jonathan Pelissie.
But a game that had started off with elan descended into a kicking battle of attrition in the swirling winds of the northwest Parisian suburbs.
Seven missed penalties peppered the match, three for Racing and four for Toulon.
Maxime Machenaud took over Racing’s kicking duties from an off-form Carter to match Pelissie’s three penalties, the latter’s third sealing a nail-biting match just two minutes from time.
World player of the year Carter was in action after just 13 seconds, booting a penalty after Ollivon was pinged for holding on directly from the kick-off.
No sooner had Toulon coach Bernard Laporte taken his place in the stands than Imhoff then picked off Maxime Mermoz’s pass and raced away from 50 metres for a try Carter also converted.
Toulon’s quality shone through, however, going through the phases until the ball eventually found dynamic Fijian winger Josua Tuisova, who squirted through the defence and offloaded to Ollivon who crashed over the line, Pelissie converting.
As the star-studded teams with a veritable foreign legion (17 of the starting 30 players representing nine nationalities) of some of the world’s most exciting players settled into a calmer rhythm than the opening helter-skelter 10 minutes, tight defences ruled.
Delon Armitage went wide with a long-range penalty, and Pelissie shortly after as the wind swirled around the Stade Yves du Manoir.
It was then the turn of Racing scrum-half Machenaud, with Carter carrying a niggle and foregoing kicking duties, to see his effort go wide before Pelissie finally drew the scores level at 10-10 at half-time of a hard-hitting yet entertaining encounter.
The Toulon scrum-half was on target with a second penalty to hand the visitors the lead for the first time just minutes into the second period.
Machenaud equalled the scores and then put Racing back in front as Toulon’s ill-discipline saw them gift the home side a raft of penalties.
Pelissie missed a second penalty as Racing withstood wave after wave of Matt Giteau-inspired Toulon attack and cleared after a Luke Charteris turnover.
But the scrum-half finally pulled Toulon level again at 16-16 to set up a nervy final quarter.
It was then the turn of Armitage and then Pelissie to see their penalty efforts go wide as the wind continued to play havoc with the kickers.
When Toulon’s Georgian replacement prop Levan Chilachava failed to roll away from a ruck in the 78th minute after some concerted Racing possession, Machenaud made sure his aim was true to the crosshairs, bringing to an abrupt end Toulon’s bid for an unprecedented fourth consecutive European title.
Earlier in Leicester, fly-half Freddie Burns notched up 16 points as he led the Tigers to a 41-13 victory over Stade Francais.
The home side scored six tries through England centre Manu Tuilagi, Fijian winger Niki Goneva (2), Burns, Mike Fitzgerald and Tongan winger Telusa Veainu.
Stade hit back when scrum-half Julien Dupuy scored a five-pointer for the reigning French league champions early in the second half.
But any hopes of a serious comeback by the Parisian club, that currently sits 12th in the Top 14, were quickly put to rest as Leicester, winners of the European Cup in 2001 and 2002, turned the screw.
Dubai Exiles had just secured a win at the third attempt against fierce rivals Abu Dhabi Harlequins that put them on the cusp of winning the UAE Premiership title, but celebrations were rather muted.
A raucous yet brief cheer was let out following the final whistle that confirmed a 19-9 triumph last Friday night. The players know there is still one more obstacle in their path.
“It’s a huge win but the job’s not done yet though,” admitted scrum-half Ed Armitage ahead of this weekend’s final round of Premiership fixtures, with Exiles welcoming the unpredictable Al Ain Amblers to The Sevens.
“Immediately after the final whistle there was a huge celebration but straight away we said ‘it’s not done’, this week’s the big one and it won’t be easy.”
Amblers stand between Exiles and the double on the Premiership’s final weekend, with the club desperate to add a title they last claimed in 2006 to the West Asia Championship grasped two weeks ago.
Victory last week opened up a four-point gap at the top of the Premiership table to Quins in second, but Al Ain provide a stern test.
Armitage added: “Al Ain are an unknown quantity. They scored 34 points against Quins the week before last so they’re not to be taken lightly. We just have to go and finish this thing off for good.”
Andrew Rouvi’s side have had a rude awakening this season after roaring to the 2014-15 UAE Conference title.
They have won just once in 17 Premiership and West Asia Championship fixtures but have played some thrilling attacking rugby since the turn of the year, scoring more than 30 points in five of their last six games.
One of those was a 60-36 defeat to Exiles in the WAC in February and Rouvi insists his side will try to spoil the title party this weekend.
“We are amped for this game. It’s the last game of the season and we plan to play it as a final. We have nothing to lose,” admitted the New Zealander.
“However, we have a lot of respect for Exiles and know how strong they will be. We enjoyed our last encounter with them and we want to build on that performance.”
Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, Quins have a similarly tricky fixture at home to Dubai Hurricanes.
Mike McFarlane’s men triumphed by a slender 37-34 margin the last time the sides met at Zayed Sports City in February, thanks to Luke Stevenson’s late penalty.
Quins still have a small chance of lifting the title and McFarlane insists his side will be giving their all.
“We can’t wait for the game and I know the boys who missed out last week are keen to finish the season with a bang,” said McFarlane.
“The players that played last week are frustrated so it will be nice to finish the season together with a strong performance.
“We are disappointed with how things have resulted in the final standings of the leagues but our professional and positive attitude will shine through both on and off the field.”
Having been forced to pull out of their penultimate game with Abu Dhabi Saracens last week, Canes are also keen to end the season on a high.
“It’s never an easy place to go and Quins still have a shot at the title so they will come out firing, but for us it’s about going there and enjoying ourselves and having a crack at taking a big scalp on the road,” said Canes skipper Daniel Perry.
“We are determined to finish on a high.”