Al Ain Amblers hope to complete a miraculous turnaround by lifting the UAE Conference crown when they meet Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the Top 6 final tomorrow (Friday).
Amblers’ 2016/17 season started disastrously when the senior side withdrew from the UAE Premiership after just one game in September with rivals ravaging them of their star players during the summer.
They fielded just one team in the Conference and their turnaround following an undercooked start there – in addition to their Premiership nightmare – will surely go down as the biggest feel-good story of the season.
“For me the final is deserved with what we’ve been through,” said Amblers’ director of rugby Rocco De Bruyn, who stepped into the coaching void when initial incumbent Niekie van Blerk returned to South Africa following a job offer.
“It’s a big surprise, it was not expected at all. I was hoping to win a few games to get the spirit and morale up but the winning culture has gone from strength to strength and the boys are playing their best.”
Despite three opening defeats in the Conference, things started to pick up for Al Ain and they won five of their next seven, with a final day 63-10 mauling of Abu Dhabi Saracens 2nds seeing De Bruyn’s boys scrape into the Top 6 reckoning thanks to a superior points tally over Heratbeat Tigers.
There the Garden City side flourished, finishing top with four wins and just one loss – including victories over early-season pacesetters Dubai Exiles 2nds and Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds.
In fact their only defeat was in their last game – a 34-33 loss to tomorrow’s final opponents Quins.
Although they have lost star names like Esekaia Dranibota and Emosi Ratuvecanaua to Quins, Sakiusa Naisau to Dragons and Jerry Kilicanasau to Exiles, De Bruyn insists the club’s famous spirit remains.
“Nothing has changed. We lost all those players at the start and a few boys have since gone, so we don’t have individuals as strong as we did but we have a great team spirit,” added the South African.
“Things are good at the club and the guys are in good spirits. I don’t think there’s a coach who doesn’t want to be in a final. Our short term goal was to reach the Top 6 which we just did and once there obviously we wanted to go for the final.”
De Bruyn has been in the UAE for a decade and has been on the Amblers’ board for five years. And although he has only served as an assistant coach to the club’s under-14 side previously, he said it was the right thing to do take the reins once Van Blerk departed.
He added: “Niekie went back to South Africa as he got a good job offer and his family were still back there too, he’s got two sons 10 and 12 so dad needed to be there, so he had to make the call. Family comes first.
“We needed to find a new coach but instead of that I said I’d step in and do what I could for the rest of the season, and the guys have really stepped up.
“I’ve not coached since I’ve been here for 10 years, but it helps that the guys have been willing and enthusiastic.”
Quins finished six points adrift of Amblers in second, but with many of the team having pushed for first team places throughout the campaign, coach Mike McFarlane is expecting them to provide stern opponents.
“The quality of the twos team is incredible,” he said.
“Week in, week out we have 50 plus lads pushing for spots in the first and the second team with boys still missing out.
“This a deserved final for the endless hours of hard work they’ve put in since pre-season. The twos play some fantastic rugby and will take it to Al Ain this weekend in the final.”
In the Bottom 5 final, meanwhile, Dubai Sharks face Heartbeat Tigers for a chance to salvage some silverware from the season.
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