Bahrain did the double over their rivals in the West Asia Premiership this season but were hammered 45-17 last Friday at league winners Abu Dhabi Harlequins – their heaviest defeat of the season.
Coach Louie Tonkin blamed himself for focusing too much attention on this week’s semi-final clash instead of concentrating on performing against Quins in a bid to build momentum, but the Welshman says mood in the camp is positive as they head to Qatar.
“The guys clearly had one eye on the semi-final and it showed in our performance, but we had a really strong meeting on Monday,” said the former Carmarthen Quins and Pontypool coach.
“The boys all believe we can be successful and that’s powerful. We have everything to play for, I don’t think there’s any favourites. We’ve beaten them twice in the league before but that counts for absolutely nothing at the moment.
“It’s a hard place to go and win so we’re not looking too much into previous results, it’s a one off fixture.”
Doha’s home is known as ‘The Fortress’ but Bahrain came away with an 18-15 win In November, completing the double with a 14-10 triumph at home last month.
And despite missing out on a home semi after Dubai Hurricanes forfeited their final fixture of the season against Doha last week to hand Alex Nater’s side second place, Tonkin says his side have no fear.
“It’s been a huge focus for us since we realised we’d qualified for the top four, and we’re hugely excited about playing in a Gulf derby,” he said.
“It’s going to be very feisty and there’s going to be a good crowd. We’re taking over a bus full of supporters too, we really appreciate them paying to travel to support us.
“We’re massively motivated and excited. We always said it would be difficult last week and it was just Quins wanted it far more than us and were far more effective than us on the night.
“We have a number of players to come back into the squad that didn’t feature last week which is really good.”
Doha have their own concerns, left restless at Canes cancelling the final game of the campaign last week.
It means Doha have been left with a game to play in a month. The last time they did play was that 14-10 reverse in Bahrain, but scrum-half Luke Ward insists he and his colleagues head into the clash refreshed and revitalised.
“We can’t wait. A break has been really refreshing for us to re-group and we’ve had a good two weeks training so we’ll be firing out the blocks on Friday,” said Ward.
“It’s cup finals rugby so anything can happen on the day, so we’re not reading too much into the Quins result, just focusing on our performance and glad to be playing at home. It will be a great day for the club.”
Dragons, synonymous with success in UAE rugby circles for so long, have fallen on hard times in recent years.
But Friday’s last four clash with old foes Abu Dhabi Harlequins is sure to stir memories of when the two were totems of UAE rugby, regularly meeting in significant games for silverware.
Dragons won back-to-back trebles of UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Gulf Top 6 titles in 2012/13 and 2013/14 before the veneer of invincibility was slowly stripped away over the following two campaigns.
They are rebuilding impressively under former dual code rugby star Henry Paul though and a 29-12 defeat of Abu Dhabi Saracens last week confirmed a fourth-placed finish in the West Asia Premiership and a shot at Cup glory.
And director of rugby Hart claims they are fully deserving of that shot.
“We have beaten (Dubai) Exiles and Sarries twice each, put 40 on (Dubai) Hurricanes and led Quins for 100 minutes when the ref played a 107-minute game (Quins won 31-30 in November),” said Hart, also still playing at prop for Dragons.
“We led Doha twice until the last 10 minutes and led Bahrain until the final 10 minutes. Big losses to Bahrain and Quins away are the only nightmares although we played very badly in a loss to Canes too.
“So we are clearly the best team in Dubai according to league points and clearly deserve our place in both the UAE Premiership final and now West Asia Cup semi-finals.”
Dragons and Quins were also come face to face in the UAE Premiership final in April, with Dragons finishing second, 10 points ahead of Dubai Exiles, and Hart believes Dragons are the most improved side in the Gulf.
“I would say the season we’ve had is the largest improvement of all teams in the region,” he added.
“We were second by 10 clear points and into the UAE final too. After two disappointing years we deserve some credit for reaching the UAE Premiership final and West Asia semi.”
Quins are chasing the quintuple – hoping to add the West Asia Cup and UAE Premiership titles to their West Asia Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League crowns.
They’re also in ominous form, having thrashed fellow semi-finalists Bahrain 45-17 last Friday, while they torched Dragons 47-7 when the two sides met just four weeks ago.
Head coach Mike McFarlane, however, is not reading too much into that.
“It’s knockout rugby so it’s winner takes all and anything can happen,” he warned.
“It will be a cracking game as always. Dragons offer an attacking threat; one which has served them well this season. Henry has done a great job there after a few disappointing seasons and it’s good to get back the fierce rivalry between the clubs.
“The boys have come off two excellent wins versus Dragons and Bahrain now at home and will look to push hard again in the business end of the season.”
Confusion has reigned as the domestic rugby season reaches its climax in the UAE, but Dubai Hurricanes are buoyed by the fact there is still a trophy to play for before the dust settles on 2016/17.
They face Abu Dhabi Saracens at The Sevens tomorrow (Friday) with the winner going through to face Dubai Exiles next week in the West Asia Trophy final.
It hasn’t been an enjoyable season for either Canes, Sarries or Exiles, but Canes head coach Mike Wernham insists his side are determined to end with a flourish.
“We’re going to give it absolutely everything and hopefully we’ll be joining the Exiles in next week’s Trophy final,” said Wernham.
“The motivation is we definitely don’t want the season to end. We want to go out on a high and that’s beating Saracens this weekend and then Exiles next weekend.
“I was at the game last week between them (Saracens) and Dragons. They started really well and we knew we blew a big opportunity against them at their place. We know they’re physical and we have to nullify their eight and nine who work really well.”
Canes have been hit with several absentees as their squad is littered with teachers away for the school holidays, but Wernham insists this won’t prevent his side being competitive.
“Unfortunately having games during the holidays always hits us hard, with so many teachers in the squad,” he added.
“We’re a little bit hampered, although that’s not an excuse and we’re not the only club in this position. Hopefully with planning for next year, games will be kept away from school holidays.”
Such has been the confusion surrounding the climax of the domestic rugby season in the UAE, Canes skipper Dave Knight admitted he was surprised to find out there was still something to play for.
“We were a bit surprised when we found out that we had a game to be honest,” he said.
“Having spoke to the guys at Sarries they were also surprised about the game. Sarries are a good team and if you don’t show them the respect they deserve they will punish you.
“We’ve had two very close games with them this year and both were very physical. Both teams like to use their forwards so I’m sure it will be won and lost there.”
Sarries are also without a number of key players, with prop Craig Nutt revealing as many as 10 first team regulars are unavailable.
Fly-half Matt Hutchings, meanwhile, is just concentrating on taking the chance against Canes to end the season on a high.
“For us it’s about trying to go out and get a good performance after what has been a disappointing season in terms of results,” said the UAE international.