Kristian Stinson has described the Dubai derby with Hurricanes as a “do or die” game for Exiles’ West Asia Premiership title hopes as they search for a win that will throw them right into the talk for the title.
After starting the season with a huge win against new boys Dubai Eagles and a 40-7 mauling of their fierce foes Canes a week later, Exiles suffered three defeats on the bounce to leave them hanging onto the coattails of the leading trio, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Jebel Ali Dragons and Bahrain.
But back to back victories, coupled with the top three all squaring off against one another in three tantalising January weeks, has allowed Exiles to sneak back into contention.
Jacques Benade’s side won against Eagles last week to leap above Bahrain – on a bye week – into third place. And they could go one point behind leaders Dragons and climb above Quins if Mike McFarlane’s men lose at home to Bahrain.
“It’s a big game for both clubs, do or die in many respects,” said prop Stinson, who is set to face his former side tomorrow at The Sevens.
“If we win then we are right back in the mix contending on all fronts, if we lose then it’s probably curtains for any realistic title aspirations, similarly for the Canes.”
Despite a rousing 76-3 hammering of Eagles a week ago, Stinson says everyone at Exiles is aware they will need to raise their game for their big rivals.
“Last week was a good run out for it first game for two months, but it was pretty poor and we weren’t happy at all, especially with the first 30 minutes. This week is a totally different challenge and we won’t get away with being as poor as we were in the those first 30.”
Luke Bertini is likely to push for a place on the bench and full-back Thinus Steyn may come back into the squad, plus lock Stephen Ferguson is fighting hard for a start, but Exiles have been rocked by losing another lock last week to an ACL injury, Kris Hughes, the Scotsman a popular figure around the club.
Stinson, whose side’s average start to the campaign was boosted by claiming a first Dubai Sevens title in 11 years last month, added: “It’s been a bit stop-start all year for us, the fixtures and how things are done really need to be looked at, to go three full months with no 15’s or any competitive rugby for some of the big boys is poor, I just hope it doesn’t affect us on Friday and we go in rusty.
“Saying that, now that we are back playing again, the intensity has been lifted and our sights have been refocused. The Sevens taught us something, you never know what could happen.”
Canes coach Mike Wernham is another man aware of how a win against Exiles will change things for them in terms of league ambitions for the rest of the season.
Canes, in fifth, are seven points adrift of Bahrain and could count themselves as potential dark horses with victory.
“Dave Knight, our captain, said it in training on Monday. It’s Exiles and it doesn’t get much bigger,” said Wernham.
“We know how important this game is in terms of league positioning. Earlier in the season they gave us a good kick-in. That defeat hurt us and we want to give a much better account of ourselves this time.
“It means an awful lot to our guys who have been playing for Canes for a lot longer than most of their side have, we’re ready to go.”
Number 8 Nick Beaumont is out with an ankle injury suffered against Sarries last week, and Andrew Powell is unavailable with work commitments.
The other game of the weekend is an equally intriguing prospect, as the two bottom sides meet at Al Ghazal.
Hosts Sarries will be out for revenge, having handed Eagles their first win as a club in September. The 17-11 victory at Dubai Sports City came in what was Eagles’ second-ever match.
They have lost every other game, while Sarries are still winless, so something has to give.
“I think like most teams at this stage, we are missing a few players but we have focused a lot on up-skilling players from the seconds and we have no doubt they will be up to the challenge at the weekend,” said Sarries skipper Jonny Taylor.
“We should be very close to the same team that ran out against the Canes last weekend.”
It’s been a tough campaign for Sarries, who began it without a home after Al Ghazal Golf Club closed. But they returned to their fortress just before Christmas while off-field issues appear to now be in order too.
“Everything has been going really well now in terms of building,” said Taylor, who was upset his side were forced to forfeit their fixture with Exiles two weeks ago.
“We just had too many front rowers out or away. It was horrible to forfeit but we couldn’t start Conference front rowers, some are still learning the game, against a Premiership team.”
Eagles can draw on their memories from the reverse fixture, though fly-half Sean Carey is taking nothing for granted.
Eagles have UAE international Josh Ives back, as well as Trey Gosling.
“Two star players are back, so that’s not a bad place to start from last week,” said the Irishman.
“We’re not taking anything for granted. We know Sarries will be making this a big one for their club, they’ll want to make a point they’re still a club to be reckoned with.
“It wasn’t a walk in the park for Canes last week (Sarries lost to Canes 31-5). We’re going out there to win, a second of the season, it will be all guns blazing for both sides. I think it’ll be a great match.”
After suffering “one of the worst weeks” of his tenure last week, Mike McFarlane’s Abu Dhabi Harlequins will look to bounce back against visiting Bahrain tomorrow.
Quins were downed 20-17 by Jebel Ali Dragons at Zayed Sports City last Friday – incredibly it was a first home defeat in three years since losing to city rivals Abu Dhabi Saracens in January 2015, and just a first since April 2014.
Things hardly get easier this weekend with another West Asia Premiership title rival in the shape of Bahrain heading to the UAE capital. Louie Tonkin’s red army are desperate for a victory that will catapult them back into the title race after they were beaten by Dragons two weeks ago.
But McFarlane insists his side are looking to put things right.
“It will be a great game against a physical, hard-working side who have had a great first half to the season,” said the Quins coach, who has never lost a home game since replacing Jeremy Manning as Quins coach in the summer of 2015.
“We are really looking forward to Friday after probably one of our worst Fridays last week. The players have been reflective and have set the intensity in reaction through training this week.
“Big games come thick and fast in this league and it is why it’s such a good league and why players enjoy playing in it, so we are ready to rumble.”
All good things come to an end as the saying goes, but McFarlane was disappointed his side didn’t play their own game last week against Dragons – they fought back valiantly from 20-3 down as Dragons held on for victory.
“Of course, we know we have that spirit, we are close knit and will fight to the end of any game for each other but we shouldn’t have been in that position,” added McFarlane.
“We are frustrated we didn’t apply ourselves in a Quins way until the 60th minute. I know the players will be looking to put that right this weekend.”
Bahrain travel to the UAE capital with high hopes of a win that will see them regain touch with the leaders, although Tonkin and his side will be wary of the wounded beast.
“We know Quins are a good side. They lost their incredible home record last week so we’re wary of the wounded animal. We know a wounded animal is dangerous and they’ll be all guns blazing,” said the Welshman, who admitted his side are shorn of several players.
Despite this he is confident his side – still reeling from a narrow 26-23 defeat to Dragons on their last visit to the UAE two weeks ago – can get a result.
He added: “We know how important the game is. If we want to do well and fight for the league, we need to go to places like Quins and win.
“And we feel confident of doing that. We have a good 22 coming and a few weeks ago against Dragons we feel we let them off the hook. We gifted them 12 points. If we’d been tighter, we feel we would have won that game so we want to right those wrongs and give a good account of ourselves.
“As always Quins are a great side. They have fantastic half-packs, a good scrum, good driving maul and are coached really well. Hopefully we’ll be good enough to get the result.”
The two teams will clash on the field tomorrow evening, but Dubai Exiles and Dubai Hurricanes will come together for the weekend to host one of the UAE and Middle East’s premier youth rugby tournaments.
The clubs jointly host the annual HSBC Mini and Youth Rugby Tournament at The Sevens Stadium tomorrow and Saturday ahead of the pair’s senior men’s sides clashing in a derby match at the same venue tomorrow night.
Former England and British & Irish Lions international Lewis Moody will be in attendance, with 3,000 players expected to take part.
Rohan Nash, of Exiles, and Canes’ Peter Clapp are joint tournament directors, and Nashis excited the tournament can play a part in growing the game of rugby in the region.
“I can’t speak for other tournaments, but many clubs in the region and beyond see our tournament as a key event to attend in their mini and youth rugby season,” said Nash.
“We have established a critical mass over the past nine years, thanks in large part to the valued support of HSBC and our other tournament sponsors.
“We also rely on the army of volunteers who provide vital support on the day as well as preparing their teams for the event.
“Mini and youth club rugby in Dubai has played a significant role in attracting many male and female players from all over the world to participate in and benefit from the wonderful game of rugby.
“With the support of the UAE Rugby Federation and schools rugby, we expect to see the game of rugby grow in the UAE and for our tournament to continue be a major fixture for years to come.”
And Nash added that Canes and Exiles are happy to put aside their rivalry for the sake of the game’s future.
“Exiles and Hurricanes put aside their friendly rivalries and decided to co-host rather than offer competing tournaments,” added Nash.
“The playing grounds of both clubs are located at the world class Sevens Stadium and sharing this venue makes co-hosting the tournament a sensible decision.
“The organising committee is made up of representatives from both clubs and the volunteers on the day consist of Hurricane and Exiles parents.”