There wasn’t much to choose between the sides on the opening day of the West Asia Premiership, with just 23 points separating six teams across three matches.
Champions Jebel Ali Dragons got off to a winning start in a close game with Dubai Exiles at The Sevens, earning a 20-14 victory. Bahrain posted the biggest win of the day, triumphing 24-14 in Abu Dhabi against Harlequins.
Elsewhere, a converted try separated Dubai Hurricanes and Eagles, with Canes just about holding on to a 20-13 success against a side who played the majority of the game with 14 men.
“It was good to grind out a win,” Dragons skipper Ross Samson said of his side’s triumph, with his team being victorious on former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips’ first game in charge.
“It was a typical first game of the season, with lots of things for both teams to go away and work on, so we aren’t getting too carried away.”
Quins coach Mike McFarlane bemoaned his side’s profligacy in the capital as they missed 14 points from the tee in defeat to Bahrain, who had won last week against his side to lift the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title.
“It was another one we let get away,” said McFarlane.
“But positives to come from it. We had 14 points missed off the boot and uncharacteristic spills after excellent continuity, really it was the ruthlessness and execution in their 22 that let us down.
“There’s lots of positives to come out of the game and although we’re disappointed we will bottle it up and be raring to go next week after a great week of training.”
At Dubai Sports City, hosts Eagles saw Number 8 Trae Gosling sent off after just 10 minutes when he was dismissed for a punch. Nevertheless, they dug in and pushed Canes all the way before going down 20-13.
“We’ve come a hell of a long way since last season,” said captain Conor Coakley.
“We’ll learn from our mistakes this weekend and I still believe we’ll be challenging the top teams this season.
“It was a closely fought game, not much between the teams. They were able to capitalise on our mistakes, execute their moves and finish. Our guys are disappointed.
“We didn’t do ourselves any favours having a man sent off 10 minutes into the game. We dug deep, in particular our new recruits. Jamie Frost at hooker and Harrison Astley had great performances.
“We’re looking to some of our senior players now to step up in the coming games because we have some big challenges ahead.”
The result was the same as in the West Asia Trophy final at the end of the season, which Canes won 31-22. Their coach Mike Wernham was frustrated by a dogged Eagles defence, although he was ultimately satisfied as a late rally from the hosts almost cost them victory.
“I think for both teams it was a brilliant start. It was a real battle,” said Wernham.
“The scoreline was a kind one for us. We were frustrated with the amount of possession we had early in the game, we weren’t able to turn it into points. We had the ball in the right areas and plenty of opportunities but for some reason we were a bit off.
“But as I told the guys it’s the first game of the season, a lot of them haven’t played a proper game in a while and they’re getting used to new teammates etc so mistakes were bound to come in.
“Hopefully we’ll address them in the week and fix them for a massive derby game against Exiles next week who are going to be coming in cheesed off after losing narrowly to Dragons.
“Credit to Eagles they’ve improved, especially physically. It was a humdinger of a game and we just managed to hold on. Our character really came through in the end and we managed to get the win. It’s a great start to the season.”
Discarded England fly-half Danny Cipriani has the chance to show Test boss Eddie Jones what he is missing when facing fit-again rival Owen Farrell as Gloucester take on Saracens.
Scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth will overtake former Saracen Steve Borthwick to set a new all-time Premiership appearance record of 266 as the Men in Black host Gloucester at Allianz Park on Sunday.
England and British and Irish Lions hooker Jamie George will also make his 200th Saracens appearance aged just 27, while Farrell is fit after a knock to start at 10 for the hosts.
England boss Jones omitted Cipriani from his latest training squad this week, insisting the decision was based purely on rugby and not the former Wasps star’s recent fine for assault and resisting arrest in Jersey.
Now the in-form Gloucester playmaker has an immediate chance to prove his worth against England’s premier fly-half in Farrell this weekend.
“It’s a great test for us so early in the season to see where we are as a team,” said Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann, with both sides unbeaten after three games of the new season.
“We haven’t played consistently well over the first three rounds so it’s going to be a massive test for us.
“We’ve not been satisfied with our performances and there are a lot of areas where we have to get better.
“Hopefully we can play the style of rugby we want to play, playing a 15-man game but transferring pressure when appropriate with a kicking game. Getting that balance right is key on the day.”
We caught up with @gloucesterrugby fly-half @DannyCipriani87.— Pro:Direct Rugby (@ProD_Rugby) September 22, 2018
He gave us an honest insight into what motivates him, how he handles being in the media spotlight and his thoughts on the season ahead.
Watch the full interview here 👉 https://t.co/xZTmkie9Lu pic.twitter.com/NRySs9cniW
Leicester will look to hit back from their 41-35 defeat at Wasps last weekend and the red card for lock Will Spencer for a head-high tackle that caused such a fuss, when hosting Worcester at Welford Road.
Interim head coach Geordan Murphy admitted he was relieved to be able to slot in a player of Graham Kitchener’s calibre to replace the suspended Spencer.
“We’ve had to make a couple of changes this week but the guys have been training well and it’s good to have Graham Kitchener back for his first game of the season, especially with Will Spencer ruled out.
“There was great heart and desire from the team at Wasps last week but we know there are areas to improve and we have to get better.”
The All Blacks have received a major boost with the announcement that New Zealand Rugby (NZR) have secured the key signatures of All Blacks, Blues and Auckland Rugby brothers, Rieko and Akira Ioane, who have both signed long-term contracts with the national body, their Blues club and the Auckland province.
21-year-old Rieko, the current World Breakthrough Player of the Year and nominee for Player of the Year, has signed a four-year deal through to the end of the 2022 season, while 23-year-old Akira has signed on through to 2021.
Rieko said he was “hugely excited” to be recommitting to New Zealand.
“I feel incredibly privileged to get the opportunity to play my rugby here for another four years. I want to give it my best shot at serving the black jersey and, hopefully, I’ll get the chance to play at the Rugby World Cup in the future. That’s a huge motivator for me,” he said.
“It was obviously tough this year for the Blues, but I feel we’re on the verge of something special and I want to be a part of that journey. Auckland is my home, it’s where I grew up and it’s the city that made me as a rugby player, so I want to do my bit to help it move forward.”
"Rugby is what I love playing and to play for the best team in the world is motivating enough for me." - #AllBlack Rieko Ioane comments on his reasons for signing long-term with New Zealand Rugby. 🖤🇳🇿— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 22, 2018
READ ➡️ https://t.co/R0lZld5fHH pic.twitter.com/M8xEs404Ra
Akira said: “It was important for me to stay in Auckland and at the Blues because it’s my home and I want to help the teams in this city succeed. I also want to keep playing my best rugby and try and make it back into the All Blacks again.
“It will also be special sharing the next few years with my brother and representing our family out on the footy field.”
Rieko became the eighth youngest All Blacks Test debutant when he came off the bench against Italy at the age of 19 years and 239 days in November 2016. He has now started 16 of his 18 Tests and scored 18 tries to date, as well as 20 tries in 35 appearances for the Blues.
All Blacks Head Coach Steve Hansen said: “This is fantastic news for New Zealand Rugby. Rieko is a young player with undoubted talent who has already achieved wonderful things on the international stage. With his growing maturity and growth in his game understanding, I’m sure we’ll see his game go to even greater heights.
“Akira is also an immense talent who has a bright future in our national game and we congratulate him on his decision as well.”
NEWS | Rieko and Akira Ioane have both re-committed to New Zealand Rugby until 2022 and 2021 respectively. Who's excited to see these two brothers stay on home soil? 🖤🇳🇿— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 20, 2018
READ ➡️ https://t.co/QiZc59UYf5 pic.twitter.com/C5NXPKieKN
Blues coach Tana Umaga added: “Rieko is an outstanding talent who works very hard at the game and is also willing to learn.
“He shows a level of maturity that belies his young age and this, as well as his passion for the club and region, makes him a leader of our young group.”
Loose forward Akira had a breakout year in 2015, making his Blues debut, and also debuted alongside Rieko in the Maori All Blacks and for Auckland. He played for the All Blacks against a French XV last year and started every Investec Super Rugby game for the Blues this season.
“Akira was our ‘go to’ player in the forwards this year and yet he is still so young,” said Umaga.
“He’s working hard to improve his game and will become a key leader in the years to come. He has such passion for our club and for Auckland – with our players this year selecting him as the Player of the Year.”
Auckland Rugby CEO Jarrod Bear said: “With Rieko’s and Akira’s development coming through the Auckland school, club and representative pathways into higher honours, Auckland Rugby is excited that they’ll continue to commit to playing and enjoying their rugby in Auckland.
“We know they are exciting players and we look forward to supporting them in the future.”