Confusion reigned in the build-up to Friday’s West Asia Premiership clash between Jebel Ali Dragons and Doha in Dubai, where both teams had completed preparations for the match, but at some point both believed the game would be or had been postponed.
Despite a collective decision by UAE officials to signal their unavailability for service for some matches this weekend, UAE Rugby Federation employee Chris Bath, who happens to be an experienced referee, eventually stepped into the void to rescue the fixture.
Thursday’s game between Dubai Hurricanes and Dubai Exiles, as well as Friday’s encounter between Bahrain and AbU Dhabi Saracens went ahead without issue, but clubs in the UAE Conference were informed by the federation midweek that their Friday matches had been postponed, reschedule for March 10.
The dispute is believed to relate to the amount of notice clubs are required to give the federation, and match officials, when they intend to reschedule fixtures.
The issue is an ongoing concern this season, and even led to one long-serving senior official from the referees’ society recently offering his resignation.
Despite Bath allowing the game to go ahead – saving Doha an estimated Dh30,000 in cancelled flights, as well as Dragons the Dh5,000 it cost to rent out a pitch at The Sevens while their Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence pitch is renovated – both clubs were left unsatisfied by the off the field issues.
“To be completely honest we don’t know the full story behind what is going on so it’s hard to point blame,” said Dragons skipper Ross Samson.
“All I know is that this is the third time the Dragons have been let down this season and it’s really disappointing. Whatever is going on needs to be sorted.
“The players are doing their bit, turning up to training and significantly raising the standard of rugby in the region every season. The clubs and their sponsors are spending more on recruitment and training programmes so it’s frustrating to be let down like this.
“Doha had booked their flights which is obviously thousands of Dirhams and we had to rent a pitch at The Sevens because our pitch is having work done, so if the fixture had not taken place both clubs would have lost a significant amount of money. Who would be liable for that?
“Luckily we managed to source a qualified referee in order for the game to go ahead but I think both teams will agree that a lack of assistant referees meant the game could not be officiated at the required level and both teams were left frustrated at crucial times.”
This was hardly an isolated issue, with Samson left to reflect on other run-ins with the authorities already this season, which leaves them playing catch-up and games in hand.
He added: “Our biggest game of the season vs Abu Dhabi Harlequins at home was a complete disgrace, when we were not given touch judges/assistant referees and the game ran an extra 20 minutes because the referee lost track of time.
“At the time it was a clash of first in the league vs second.
“Then we had rearranged our game vs Hurricanes for the evening of Thursday, January 16. We had gone through the official channels but for whatever reason it was not communicated between the union and the referees so we have had to move the fixture for later in the season as there was no referees available.”
Despite a victory on Friday that kept his side on Quins’ coat tails at the top of the WAP, Doha coach Alex Natera was still reeling from the farcical circumstances surrounding his side’s approach to the match.
“It was a bit of a disaster to be fair,” said Natera, who was of the opinion the match had been postponed on Thursday, even though Dragons believed it was going ahead as planned.
“The referee we had had a good crack and we are very grateful but both teams just did what they wanted to do to be honest.
“As for the debacle it’s just not good enough. If we are to be competing in a league that has real credibility in world rugby this sort of thing needs not to happen again. Someone needs to get it sorted out.”
Canes have lost both games under Wernham, but pushed runaway West Asia Premiership leaders Abu Dhabi Harlequins all the way in his first game in charge, a 24-19 defeat at Zayed Sports City a little under a month ago.
They followed that with a spirited 20-10 defeat in Bahrain and now they host fierce Dubai rivals Exiles at The Sevens tomorrow looking for just a third win of the season and to complete the double against the reigning West Asia and UAE champions.
“We’ve had two good results that have shown progress but we need to push on now for a win against one of our biggest rivals,” said Wernham.
“Having had two weeks off we’ve had some really good training sessions, lads wanting to improve constantly and itching to get back playing.
“We know Exiles are in good form after getting a result in Bahrain so we’re expecting them to be full of confidence and, following the result against them earlier in the season, we’re expecting them to come out all guns blazing. We have a big challenge ahead.”
Canes skipper Dave Knight is predicting another close game following October’s last-gasp 19-17 win when the two sides clash at The Sevens tonight (Thursday).
“Things have been building since the restart in January. We felt we probably should have got a result against Quins and Bahrain so the boys will be fired up,” said the UAE international.
“It’s small margins in this league but we are getting closer. We’re definitely moving in the right direction. Playing your neighbors under Thursday night lights adds something special to the fixture.
“We sneaked the win against them earlier in season but both teams were quite different back then. I’m sure it will be another close game.”
Exiles will be boosted by their 33-32 triumph in Bahrain a few weeks ago which reignited their push for the post-season. But, with Jebel Ali Dragons just a point behind in fifth place and with two games in hand, Jacques Benade knows his team can’t stop there.
“It’s another big week if we want to qualify for the playoffs,” said the South African.
“It was a great win for us in Bahrain but we know that Canes are playing great rugby and signed some good players over the Christmas period. It is always a tough game between the two of us and I do believe we will need to step it up another level to get a good result.”
Despite their woeful form this season, Exiles have been ravaged by injuries, with winger Ed James the latest casualty following a sickening concussion in Bahrain.
“It is really our pack who secured our win against Bahrain and it will have to come from our forwards again this weekend,” added Benade.
“Our set-piece was excellent against Bahrain and the work rate off the ball was outstanding. We will need that this weekend again. We got bullied off the ball in our previous fixture against Canes so hopefully we will be up for this game.”
Sarries won 12-10 at Al Ghazal in October but have lost their seven other games, five by seven points or less. Travelling away is always a tough task but in addition to dreams of a double, Sarries will also be buoyed by the fact that struggling Dubai Exiles won in Bahrain two weeks ago.
“We are a proud bunch of guys who enjoy playing rugby and are looking forward to rising to the atmosphere and cauldron of Bahrain,” said Cowie.
“We’re really excited. Two similar minded, physical teams will be going at it hammer and tongs. We have previously beaten them this year and will be going for the double.
“We have a lot of respect for them mind you – Louie (Tonkin, head coach), Adam (Wallace, captain) and the boys are a great bunch and when it’s all said and done we will have a good catch up after. It’s going to be a cracking day.”
Sarries travel minus a few players due to suspension and injury, but prop Craig Nutt knows the team will give 100 per cent, adding: “We are looking forward to the challenge, it is going to be a good game and a very physical encounter.”
Although they have enjoyed a largely impressive season, building on big advancements made in 2015/16, Bahrain were deflated by their 33-32 loss to Exiles at the end of January.
And despite being the home side, Tonkin is wary of the travelling Sarries.
“We lost against Sarries away from home, they’re a real tough, physical side,” said the Welshman.
“We played well in the first half but it was our discipline and their kicking game that cost us, they executed their game plan very well so we’ll be prepared for that this week.
“We know it will be a hard match but we’ve got to build a performance. Their league position doesn’t indicate how good a side they are, we’re in for a battle, but we’ve just got to win.
“We were disappointed against Exiles, we should have won, so we know how important it is. We know if we get a performance the result will take care of itself.”
Bahrain also have some injuries in the pack to contend with, including two concussions suffered in the bruising Exiles encounter.