Mike McFarlane insists his players won’t let their standards drop as Abu Dhabi Harlequins go in search of the quintuple and a perfect season.
Quins lifted a fourth crown of an immense 2016/17 on Friday as they became West Asia Cup champions following a 31-25 victory over battling Bahrain in Abu Dhabi.
And they have the chance to cap a dream campaign when they meet Jebel Ali Dragons with the UAE Premiership title on the line at Dubai Sports City this Friday.
“The boys will not let standards and expectations drop. They set the bar,” McFarlane said after his side completed the quadruple, with the Cup following glory in the West Asia Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League.
“Quins have got a massive history and I doubt anyone has won four and certainly not five trophies. A fifth would be great but we need to take a minute to celebrate this.
“Getting a fourth is unprecedented. It’s some effort, given the caliber of teams. It’s not a mickey mouse league, we’re playing some top teams.
“Look at (neighbours Abu Dhabi) Saracens. We beat them by two points. OK the second game was a bigger score but they’ve been taking points off everyone, and they finished bottom. It just shows the standard. So to win four is a great effort.”
In the end the scoreline flattered Bahrain as Louie Tonkin’s visitors scored two tries in the final two minutes to reduce the winning margin to six.
But Quins only led by three with 15 minutes left having been dominated by the visitors in an under par first half – despite the fact they were level at the interval thanks to Luke Stevenson’s try minutes before the break.
But McFarlane said there was never a concern his side could not turn on the style.
He added: “We always set ourselves high standards. I think if any other team had put in that performance they would have thought ‘we’ve done alright here at 10-10’, but we were gutted.
“The boys are honest with themselves and we were all 6 out of 10 and that’s not good enough. I said in the circle only come out if you’re going to be 9 out of 10 by the end of the game, and they all stepped up. They ran themselves into the wall and that’s all you can expect.
“I think there’s been one game this season where I’ve had to give them a kick up the arse. They know themselves and that’s where you get performances like that.
“I knew there was more to come, 100 per cent. We didn’t get out of second gear, I don’t think we were ever under threat really. The defensive work really paid off.
“We were a bit naïve and clumsy at time, chucking away ball, and that’s unlike us, but it was our focus in the second half. We tightened the game up, developed a few more phases and we were a much better team.”
Abu Dhabi Harlequins stand on the verge of history – beat Jebel Ali Dragons in the UAE Premiership final at Dubai Sports City this Friday and they will complete a clean sweep of five major trophies this season.
There are very scant records kept on UAE rugby and trawling through statistics down the years would be an arduous and thankless task, but one thing is abundantly clear.
There has never been a domestic team that has won a quintuple during a campaign.
Quins have already claimed the quadruple after their 31-25 victory over Bahrain on Friday confirmed them as West Asia Cup champions. It completed a West Asia double with the Premiership earned in farcical circumstances in February.
A third straight Dubai Sevens crown was lifted in December with the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League trophy kicking off an unprecedented story of success way back in September.
Whatever happens against Dragons in five days’ time, Quins have already surpassed the achievements of any UAE club, certainly in recent memory.
It’s fitting that the country’s torchbearers in terms of success stand between the Zayed Sports City-based club and history.
Dragons, who play at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence, have been the embodiment of excellence in recent years.
Winning back to back trebles of UAE Premiership, Gulf Top 6 and Dubai Sevens titles in 2012/13 and 2013/14 were hugely impressive feats, and served as the greatest club achievement – until now.
The fact Quins stand on the precipice of such splendor is even more impressive when the growth of professionalism among the UAE’s elite clubs and standard of today’s players is brought into consideration.
The recruitment process deployed by teams, the luring of sponsors like Etihad Airways and Porsche, ties established with the likes of Saracens and Harlequins in the UK and Super Rugby’s Hurricanes, and the root and branch development of youth academies at many clubs, means the game is creeping ever closer to becoming professional.
The calibre of players featuring in the UAE and West Asia Premiership is such that the UAE national team is beginning to emerge as a force in Asia rugby, with former dual code star Apollo Perelini obtained as rugby performance manager and now able to pick his national team squads exclusively from the top league.
Former New Zealand rugby league and England union international Henry Paul came on board as Dragons’ head coach last summer, while former Emerging Springbok Jacques Benade led Dubai Exiles to the West Asia and UAE Premiership double in his first season in 2015/16.
Abu Dhabi Saracens, West Asia champions two seasons ago, finished bottom this season, caught in a quagmire as others around them embraced the need to improve or risk being left behind.
Teams are better and more talented than ever, so the fact Quins are one win away from a total monopoly on available silverware this term should serve as an indicator for how impressively they have performed.
Admittedly, the Western Clubs Champions League is a relatively meaningless competition played during pre-season between just three teams.
And it cannot be ignored that Quins’ West Asia Premiership crown is slightly tainted by the confusion caused by the lack of clarity and promotion of the 2016/17 league’s format by competition organisers.
But take nothing away from Mike McFarlane and his men. No team has ever captured four trophies in a season – and if that becomes five this Friday, it will be truly special.
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.”