Abu Dhabi Harlequins are just one win away from an historic quintuple after they earned a hard-fought triumph against a battling Bahrain to lift the West Asia Cup.
The two sides were neck and neck for 65 minutes of a ferocious encounter before Mike McFarlane’s men struck twice in eight minutes to put them on course for the quadruple of Cup, West Asia Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League titles. They will play Jebel Ali Dragons in next week’s UAE Premiership final to try and make it an unprecedented quintuple.
Brave Bahrain cut the winning margin to six with two tries in the final two minutes and put a deserved gloss on the final score, but it was again a show of ruthless precision from the capital city side who have been a cut above in 2016/17.
They were easily second best in a first 40 minutes in which Bahrain’s impressive travelling support had plenty to cheer about as their side defended manfully and attacked with tenacity and searing speed.
But the fact that Quins went in at the break level thanks to Luke Stevenson’s try minutes from the interval was telling – Quins had been kept in a low gear, but the real test was to come in the second period for the away side.
Quins thought they were on the board inside two minutes when Emosi Ratuvecanaua capitolised on a defensive error to saunter in for a try, but the winger embarrassingly overran the ball over the dead ball line and Bahrain blew a huge sigh of relief.
They took the lead through Luke Radley’s fine 40m penalty into the wind and even though Stevenson leveled soon after, the noise among their raucous fans on the hill went up a few levels when they scored the game’s first try.
Captain Adam Wallace pierced a gap in the Quins defence to surge clear and when he was confronted by last man Stevenson, he offloaded to lock Mark Burnell who had enough gas to get to the line.
Bahrain were on top and Quins were getting frustrated, bullocking centre Willie Umu just one of many guilty of putting the ball on the ground when moves were being created.
They tied the game two minutes before the interval though following Cameron Roberts’ inventive chip over the top. He was taken out by full-back Ollie Luke but Bahrain failed to clear and after several forward drives the ball was spread wide and Stevenson went over.
Playing at 15, Stevenson, the Quins architect, came to life in the second half, punishing Bahrain at every opportunity.
He potted two more penalties to radley’s one to edge Quins 16-13 ahead with 15 minutes remaining.
Then, a brilliant piece of incisive play from livewire winger Barry Dwyer saw him pick up from the base of a ruck to scamper over – Stevenson’s conversion finally gave Quins a bit of daylight at 23-13.
That became a chasm when scrum-half Sam Bolger touched down following a flowing backs move with six minutes later and another Stevenson penalty made it 31-13 and took his personal tally to 21.
Bahrain fought until the bitter end though and gave their fans something to shout about with two late scores. First, Greg Heath went over for the best try of the game, throwing an outrageous dummy following a brilliant counter-attack to give them a glimmer of hope.
And, with the clock past 80 minutes, Wallace charged forward and got the ball to replacement wing Shane Stapleton who shimmied over in the corner to give the scoreline the respectability their overall performance deserved.
Ben Bolger hailed Quins’ herculean team spirit as they fought back from an under par first half performance to blow Bahrain away in the second period and claim a fourth trophy of the season.
Captain Bolger spoke of a close brotherhood that has formed among the players this season, and it was that which came to the fore in the second period as Quins showed their class.
“We were poor first half, forcing things. Too many trying to push that final pass. Six out of 10s across the board,” admitted talismanic flanker Bolger.
“It felt like a run of the mill league game and we needed a West Asia Cup final effort. We came out a lot better in the second half and turned it on, which we’ve done all season.
“We never thought we were out of it. We’ve won so many games in the dying seconds, Bahrain away when we were 15-0 down, Dragons when we won came back and won 31-30.
“It’s a rugby team but we’re so close. We’re a bunch of mates and it makes such a difference. Defending your goal-line you don’t want to let your mate down. All the teams in the Gulf will say that but honestly we’re so close.”
Bolger has grown accustomed to winning silverware and appearing in finals while donning the Quins shirt in recent years, but he claims the current squad is the best the club has ever had.
He added: “The depth is pretty impressive. We missed Brian (Geraghty, centre) today but Cam (Roberts) came back in after five weeks away and looks like he’d never been away. Conor Canny, who’s been amazing all season, had a concussion today (so couldn’t play.
“Some lads have had to play minutes for the twos and Phil Abraham comes in today having been out of the squad for a few weeks, and makes two or three quality turnovers.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve been in finals, but this is the first time we’ve had such depth and quality in the squad.”
Canes have largely struggled, winning just three of 12 West Asia Premiership games and three of eight UAE Premiership clashes, but they at least signed off with a trophy at The Sevens.
And, Wernham insists his side will need to carry their end of season form into the next.
“All the boys said it’s a benchmark for us. We need to stay switched on during the off-season and we’re gunning for a higher finish next season,” said Wernham.
“The intention was to build positively from the final three games into next season and we were delighted to make it 2-1 for us over our big rivals, Exiles. We both got one win each in the league so we won the series today. With it being the last game for the season we wanted to finish on a high.”
“We looked like we were in control for most of the game,” added Wernham, who replaced James Ham as head coach at the start of the year.
“We played some really good rugby and scored some nice tries. Andrew Powell was a huge performer as he has been for the majority of the season. New outside centre Elliot Speed was also a huge threat all game at outside centre.”
Defeat compounded a thoroughly wretched season for Exiles – UAE and Gulf champions 12 months ago.
Scrum-half Ed Armitage, who is leaving Dubai this summer, said the result summed up their season.
“They were the better team on the day,” he said.
“It was the story of our season really, we’re so close and look good at times but we made stupid mistakes and that was it. We had a few honest words at the end. Mentally we weren’t in it. Classic Exiles this season. One step forward, two steps back, which is a shame.”
Exiles trailed 13-6 at the break following Mike Gregory’s try for Canes. The two teams then traded blows in the second half with Canes leading 28-25 at one stage.
A chip over the top led to another Canes try and a final try for Exiles with 20 seconds remaining only served as scant consolation for Jacques Benade’s fallen champions.
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.”