Having finished the season locked at the top of the UAE Conference, both Dubai Tigers and Sharjah Wanderers would have been looking for any edge they could get as they headed into the Top 5 final on Friday.
For the fledgling Tigers, their biggest edge was arguably the fact they had a former UAE international who had enjoyed significant success with Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Doha during a near decade spent in the Middle East.
New Zealander Jamie Clarke joined Tigers last year, but on the business rather than the playing side as development manager of the club’s backers, Heartbeat Sports.
He returned from a year off this year and it paid dividends as the flanker led Tigers – winners of the Conference’s Bottom 5 title for the previous two years – to the second tier’s senior trophy.
The showpiece was every bit as tight as the season – which saw Wanderers and Tigers finish joint top on 41 points. After Sharjah missed a penalty that would have won a game that went to extra time, Peter Kelly’s try saw Tigers roar to a 25-20 triumph.
Although a year off when he first arrived back in the UAE – Clarke was with Quins for four-and-a-half years before spending another four-and-a-half in Qatar with Doha – did his body the world of good, the Taupo native admits a return to the pitch this year proved just too tantalising.
“A year off did me the world of good when I first moved here last year,” said the 32-year-old.
“I didn’t play last year and not having the pressure of Premiership rugby gave me the chance to enjoy my rugby more this year. I think it rekindled the fire a bit.
“I’m not getting any younger so you think about those things, but we’ll see what we do in the future as a club.”
Tigers now have the choice of accepting promotion to the West Asia Premiership for the 2018/19 season – an option Sharjah declined when they won the Conference title two years ago.
For a club only established in 2014, Clarke believes they will ultimately decide to stay where they are and continue building – after all they have come a long way in four years; even in 12 months.
“We set the goal two years ago that this is where we wanted to be. We worked hard to try and achieve it. It’s our fourth season as a club and we needed to make sure yesterday we made it happen,” added Clarke.
“It’s been a big 12 months for the men’s team. The club’s been here for four years but we’ve never won the Conference. We never had a men’s team when the club started.”
Tigers’ junior set-up is among the best in the UAE, something which bodes well for the club’s future.
“To be sustainable in the Middle East you have to have that junior section, which has been and still is a big emphasis. The men’s team was kind of a social club but then they decided to give it a crack. Some good boys moved to town and we decided to drive it forward this year.
“We’ve been lucky enough to attract some good players that have come to Dubai or been here a while. Culturally we’re pretty sound, there’s a relaxed nature at the club, we still only train once a week, we don’t put too much pressure on the boys to train twice a week.
“The social side is still there but they also know when they have to show up.”
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