Abu Dhabi Saracens began life in the second tier of UAE rugby in dramatic fashion as their 13 men held on to an eventually convincing 26-7 win against Al Ain Amblers on Friday.
Saracens took the decision to self-relegate themselves to the UAE Conference on the eve of the 2018/19 campaign in a bid to secure their future following a tumultuous few years.
Sarries lost flanker Stephen Marty after just 15 minutes when he reacted badly to a late tackle following a score for captain Jonny Taylor. Peter Henderson’s side were at a two-man disadvantage for the last 30 minutes when Aurlien Euphrasie was dismissed for a high tackle.
Things looked bad for the hosts at Al Ghazal who held a precarious 12-7 lead at that point – but Henderson’s men put in a herculean effort to score two late tries to earn an ultimately emphatic win to start the season in style.
They even had just 12 on the field for eight minutes after receiving a yellow card for offside, and head coach Henderson was full of praise for his troops’ efforts.
“Defence and composure, to be down that many players for so long, was outstanding,” said Henderson.
Unofficial results in from yesterday - https://t.co/vlC3DBxfTB @JebelAliDragons @DubaiSharksRFC @ADSaracensRugby @caneseffect @AlAinAmblers @abudhabiquins @GetyourOrangeon @DubaiExiles @dubaitigersrfc @RAKRugby @EaglesDubai pic.twitter.com/Zz0jtjehjF— Yalla Rugby (@yallarugby) 22 September 2018
“The heart and the passion to actually do what they did for so long was a lesson in humility and dedication. I could not have asked more of the club. There were 13 on the pitch but a few hundred in spirit.”
Henderson had no complaints with Marty’s red card but wondered how officials missed the initial offence that provoked his reaction.
Henderson added: “After 15 minutes one of our boys reacted to some dirty play to be honest. We scored off the back of the scrum and their loose forward rammed him with his knees into the back of his head after he scored.
“Our support runner reacted. Instant red card – deserved to be fair, but the cheap shot was missed. How, I don’t know.
“The second red card was due to a perceived high tackle. We’re looking to contest that. Then soon after we copped a yellow for offside so we were down to 12 for about eight minutes and played the final 25 with 13.
“The score was 12-7 up until the final 25 minutes when we went in twice within the last 15 minutes.
“I’m very proud of the structure and composure in attack and defence to do that in those final 25 minutes. It took 55 minutes to get there but they did manage to focus when the time came.”
The ill-discipline is something Henderson insists will be worked on during training this week.
“My boys were a little over-zealous and excited to be let loose to put all the hard work into action which led to some ill-discipline,” he added.
“We will be working on that, to trust the structure and game plan and not stray out of frustration or being over-eager.”
UAE Conference results:
Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds 10 Dubai Tigers 52
Abu Dhabi Saracens 26 Ain Amblers 7
Dubai Eagles 2nds 0 Dubai Hurricanes 2nds 39
Dubai Exiles 2nds 22 Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds 26
Dubai Sharks 41 Arabian Knights 7
Exiles – double winners last season after collecting the Dubai Sevens and UAE Premiership titles – arguably had the most difficult start to the new 2018/19 campaign last Friday as they welcomed Mike Phillips’ men to The Sevens Stadium.
They went down to a 20-14 defeat, but director of rugby Benade bemoaned the fact poor decision-making led to his side giving up an eight point lead in the second half.
“Of course I’m always disappointed in losing the game but there were also a lot of positives,” said the South African.
“Two very even teams and on the day they just took their chances and we didn’t.”
Victory provided former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half Phillips with a debut win in his first competitive fixture since taking over at Dragons following Henry Paul’s departure to be assistant coach of the Canada national team.
Dragons won the Premiership last term – overcoming Bahrain on the final match day to rip the title away from Abu Dhabi Harlequins. And after a summer recruitment drive which has included the acquisition of Phillips as coach, they are the early favourites to retain their title.
They displayed their credentials as they fought back at Exiles, a penalty try and a fine counter-attacking score seeing an eight point deficit quickly turned into a three point lead.
“Going up 11-3 in the second half I thought we were in control but with an unnecessary penalty try and a bad clearance kick we suddenly found ourselves behind 17-14,” added Benade, who led Exiles back to prominence last season after a woeful 2016/17.
“Our set-piece was fine and we looked strong for the first 55 minutes, earning a scrum penalty and also stealing two or three of their lineouts. But it eventually cost us the game as we struggled in the last 25 minutes, losing key lineouts at good attacking positions and also put under severe pressure in the scrums which led to the penalty in our 22.
“At 20-14 and we had to chase the game. Again we were creating opportunities but our decision-making let us down.”
And, ultimately, Benade and his players will come out of the game knowing the positives outweigh the negatives.
“As I said, I’m happy in that we are creating opportunities, we just now need to finish them off,” added the former Emerging Springboks fly-half.
“It’s a long season. I’m happy with our performance on our first run out. We will build on this and we will get better during the season.”
In the weekend’s other games, Bahrain won 24-14 in Abu Dhabi as they overcame hosts Harlequins, while Dubai Hurricanes beat Dubai Eagles 20-13 in a repeat of last term’s West Asia Trophy final.
Farrell was superb on Sunday as the champions claimed a fourth successive bonus-point win to secure first place and he will now join Eddie Jones’ training squad for a three-day camp in Bristol.
Jones made possibly the most contentious decision of his reign as England head coach by omitting Danny Cipriani from the 36-man party on the basis of form, even though he has been superb for Gloucester.
It was a different story at Allianz Park, however, as Cipriani was reduced to a peripheral figure, playing behind a pack that had been bullied into submission.
“Owen was incredibly influential. It wasn’t just his skill set, it was the physical tone he set. Physically he was incredible,” Saracens director of rugby McCall said.
“If you listen to the ref mic, vocally he was off the charts. He’s just an incredible player who adds in every way.
“Not just in his kicking and passing, but emotionally and physically as well. He threw himself into contact.”
Massive congrats to @rwiggy9 for breaking the premiership appearance record. An incredible achievement at the highest level. Also to @J_George2 for reaching 200 @Saracens caps. Two great blokes who have done so much for the club #wolfpack— Alex Goode (@Alex_goode0) 23 September 2018
Jones insisted Cipriani’s conviction for common assault and resisting arrest during Gloucester’s pre-season tour to Jersey had not played a part in his decision, instead declaring Farrell and George Ford to be his preferred fly-halves.
Cherry and Whites head coach Johan Ackermann admitted it is up to Cipriani to prove Jones wrong on the pitch.
“Danny has had setbacks in his life, otherwise he would have constantly been in the England squad,” he said.
“He’s taken it on the chin and the only way for him to reply is on the field. You have to consistently perform.
“The good thing about Danny is that he’s an experienced player and he’s had disappointments in the past.
“It’s a bit like a referee’s decision – you can’t change it once it’s been made. If England want two 10s and an extra centre, that’s the way you divide the cake. It’s not all about Danny.”
Maro Itoje scored two tries to lead the bonus-point assault on a team that arrived in north London with the belief they could make an impression on the title race.
“Maro has probably been the one shining light through our season so far,” McCall said.
“He’s in a hurry to be better and he sets an incredible example in training. He was great. It doesn’t matter if he plays lock or flanker.
“We were disappointed with ourselves over the first three weeks, we just felt there was more in us.”