Abu Dhabi Harlequins coach Mike McFarlane was magnanimous in defeat, revealing he emailed Jebel Ali Dragons head coach Henry Paul congratulating him on his side lifting the West Asia Premiership title.
Quins went into the final week of the Premiership season in second place, but in the driving seat to retain their trophy as they travelled to Dubai Sports City for an eminently winnable game against lowly Dubai Eagles – with a bonus point win expected.
That was achieved, with Quins winning 55-3 – meaning Dragons also required a maximum victory, but at fortress Bahrain, who hadn’t lost a home game in 14 months.
But that’s exactly what Dragons did, winning 36-32 in Saar to lift a first trophy in four years – not since April 2014 and winning the Gulf Top 6 final had Dragons won a piece of silverware.
“I’m pretty gutted but we did everything we could as a squad,” admitted McFarlane.
“We’ve put in some tremendous performances this season, at times when we were up against it. We will look back on that loss at home to Dragons as a slip up but that’s the nature of such a competitive league.”
The 2017/18 Premiership has been an epic competition, with the title fiercely contested between four teams – Dragons, Quins, Bahrain and Dubai Exiles – all of whom could have won it with two weeks remaining and three in with a shout on the final day.
McFarlane added: “I’ve already emailed Henry Paul and Johnny MacDonald to congratulate them. To go over to Bahrain and get that result is a cracking effort so fair play to them and their lads.”
After a quintuple for Quins last term – they won the West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens, West Asia Cup and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League titles – McFarlane’s men have now relinquished their grip on two, with Dragons claiming West Asia supremecy and Exiles winning at the Sevens in December.
But there is still the UAE Premiership and West Asia Cups to defend, with Quins in the domestic final and receiving a home semi-final against Exiles in the Cup in two weeks’ time after finishing runners-up.
And McFarlane insists there’s plenty to be positive about.
“Absolutely. The boys are mentally strong and resolute and will come back with a bang no doubt,” he said. “They will always give 100 per cent and that’s all I can ever ask for.”
Yet even though the ex-Edinburgh and London Irish scrum-half arrived at the club in the midst of that second season, he admits he never felt fully part of the success as he missed both the Sevens and Gulf Top 6 finals through injury.
But after leading Dragons to the West Asia Premiership title on Friday, the Dragons captain called it “the best day I’ve had at Dragons”.
“I came in 2013 when we won the last treble. I was injured for the Sevens though and injured myself in the warm-up for the Gulf Top 6 final so I never really felt I could call myself a proper league winner,” said the Scottish scrum-half after an epic finale to an epic season – Dragons beat Bahrain 36-32 in Saar via the bonus point required to stop Abu Dhabi Harlequins retaining their crown, winning the league by a mere point.
“There’s a part of you that doesn’t feel part of it if you don’t play the final. But this is the best day I’ve had at Dragons.
“The best two moments this season were beating Quins in the Sevens semis and getting that monkey off our back. The second was yesterday when Niko (Volavola) scored the fifth try. We knew that was it.”
Since that debut season following his arrival in Dubai, it’s been quite a different story for Dragons and Samson.
Players and coaches departed and success was replaced by stagnation. As Quins, fledglings Abu Dhabi Saracens and sleeping giants Dubai Exiles rose to prominence, Dragons slipped into obscurity.
The following two campaigns in 2014/15 and 2015/16 were transitional ones. They reached the UAE Premiership final last term but were beaten by Quins as a famous quintuple was toasted. A first piece of silverware in 44 months was within reach as they reached the Sevens final in December, but they were eclipsed by a first Gulf Men’s League title for Exiles in 11 years.
But just three months later and finally they have another trophy to put in the club cabinet. And Samson admits Dragons’ players have grown closer having risen from the ashes.
“The year after that (last treble) a lot of boys went off and got married and had kids and we were at sixes and sevens for a few years,” said Samson, 30.
“Bruce (Pendrey) came in and coached us (in 2015/16), I helped out but didn’t have a clue what I was doing. We had a few good players coming in like Matt Henry and Jonathan Hamilton and since then we’ve built and built.
“There’s been a few players join every season and we’ve now got a nucleus that’s seen all the rubbish and been at the bottom scrapping. We’ve got better and better and HP (Henry Paul) has come in and that’s been a massive positive influence and he introduced the structure.
“We’ve got J Mac and Buisty (assistant coaches Jonny MacDonald and Andy Buist) coaching and HP has been away the last few weeks.
“They’ve stepped up and we’ve been playing out of our skins. We’ve got 20 or 30 honest lads who want to win the league and we’ve done it.”
Coming into the Premiership’s final weekend, Dragons were top but knew they were second favourites to win the title, having to go to Bahrain – previously unbeaten at home in 14 months under Louie Tonkin.
Realistically only a bonus point win would suffice. Quins finished their campaign at second-bottom Dubai Eagles where a maximum victory was expected.
If Dragons had won without a bonus point the two teams would have finished level on points, but the title would have stayed in the UAE capital with Quins possessing a superior points for and difference record.
“There was no real option for us,” said Samson, whose side raced into a 36-11 lead in the second half – with tries for Volavola, Ryno Fourie, Jonathan Hamilton, James Love and skipper Samson – before the hosts surged back to score three tries and leave Dragons sweating.
“We had to go there and get a bonus point otherwise Quins were going to win the league. Half-time we were 11-10 down. We knew we had to score three more tries which we did in 10-15 minutes and then got one more so we were 36-11 up with 20 minutes to go.
“We let it slip a little bit. When they were about to score the last try I was screaming at the guys to let them score, shouting “We’ve won, we’ve won”. I was crying on the pitch with joy.”
After scoring 24 tries in 18 matches this season, Perry Baker (aka ‘Speed Stick’) continues to be one of the most devastating finishers on the Sevens circuit.
In November, the US star picked up the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year award after scoring 57 tries during a memorable 2016/17 season.
In what was a tumultuous year for the 31-year-old Florida native, many believed England’s Danny Norton – another star operating at an immense level – deserved the accolade after a season in which he broke the Rugby Sevens try scoring record.
But if there was any doubt about who the stand-out player is, it was nullified this weekend in Las Vegas as Baker crossed the line for eight tries and looked virtually unmarkable during America’s successful campaign.
At 6’1 and 82kg, Baker possesses frightening pace and power. Against England in the quarter-finals he scored three first-half tries, with his first five strides taking him past two players at a time. It’s scary to think a winger competing at this level can make it look so easy.
Not only can he beat opponents and score tries, but he is also solid in defence and demonstrated this when holding up a series of attacks against England and Fiji, at points in the game when the US were under pressure.
In most teams – amateur and professional – a lethal winger can sometimes be a weak tackler, but Baker’s freakish ability to be strong in attack and defence highlights his status as the best player in Sevens rugby.
The Blitzboks’ Seabelo Senatla – now playing Super Rugby with the Stormers – is another outstanding figure on the Sevens circuit, and Luke Morgan is having the year of his life for Wales – but in Baker, the Eagles possess a naturally gifted all-round player.
When the Eagles Sevens stepped out against Argentina in the final of the Las Vegas 7s on Sunday, it was always going to be an interesting encounter – with the hosts bidding for a second ever win on the circuit and Argentina featuring in just their second final.
But Mike Friday’s side looked more influential with ball in hand, and Baker crossed the line for one of the four tries as they sealed a first win on the circuit since May 2015 at the London Sevens.
Sevens has always taken Baker’s preference, but with US rugby rising, could 2018 be the year we see the most devastating finisher in the game star for the 15s side?
It may be too early to get excited, but Baker’s superiority in Las Vegas shows a player with the complete array of skills required to thrive at any format of the game.