It may be all change at Abu Dhabi Harlequins with the sudden departure of renowned coach Mike McFarlane, but the winning habit remains judging by their 29-25 triumph over Jebel Ali Dragons on Friday night.
Senior players Craig Nutt and Luke Stevenson have stepped up into the sizeable void left by McFarlane, who returned to the United Kingdom last week for personal reasons.
Prop Nutt and fly-half Stevenson will take on dual player/coach roles for the remainder of the campaign, although Nutt revealed that a large group of current and ex-players, as well as coaches, will lead the team collectively.
With three games of the West Asia Premiership season remaining they kept in touch with Bahrain at the top of the table on Friday with a four-point win over Dragons – who also said goodbye to their coach, Wales and British & Irish Lions great Mike Phillips, earlier this month.
The bonus point win leaves Quins nine points adrift of Bahrain with three games to go.
“We are just helping out, we are not the official coaches, it’s a collective effort until the end of the season,” Welshman Nutt told Sport360 following Quins’ win in Jebel Ali.
“At Quins, all is the same really. We still have all the same coaches in place and some of the players and ex-players have put their hands up to help out to spread the workload, as Mike leaving has left a hole, obviously.
“He was a top coach and a great bloke.”
McFarlane brought unparalleled success to Quins during four-and-a-half years in charge – lifting 10 of 19 trophies available from the time he took over in the summer of 2015 from Jeremy Manning to the culmination of the 2017/18 campaign.
Even amid testing times in the latter part of his reign, McFarlane kept Quins hyper competitive.
Their three-year sponsorship deal with Etihad was not renewed on the eve of the 2017/18 season, while there were also a number of high-profile player departures plus the blow of seeing influential skipper Ben Bolger forced into retirement through concussion.
Despite this, they remained competitive on the field as they, Dragons, Bahrain and Dubai Exiles contested and shared the major honours.
Quins retained the Champions League title and added the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup, but the major titles avoided them.
They lost the West Asia Premiership crown to Dragons in Bahrain, the latter beat Exiles in the West Asia Cup final, Exiles beat Dragons in the Dubai Sevens final and Quins lost the final game of the season and their grip on the UAE Premiership to Exiles.
More departures last summer precipitated the opinion that yet more struggle was to follow. But Quins have been the one team to keep pace with runaway league leaders Bahrain – who thrashed Quins 49-15 in the previous round of action.
“With the season it was tough result last week, even harder watching it on TV as I was away,” added Nutt, who revealed Quins will concentrate on the West Asia Cup with Bahrain in sight of the Premiership title, while they lead the UAE Premiership by 17 points from Exiles.
“Bahrain are a quality side and we are hoping and pushing for one last crack at them at the end of the season, hopefully in the final.
“In the UAE league we are looking good there for the time being but we’re not taking anything for granted as all the sides can beat you on their day in this league.”
West Asia Premiership results:
Bahrain f-f Eagles
Dubai Hurricanes 27 Dubai Exiles 32
Jebel Ali Dragons 25 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 29
England forward Maro Itoje has signed a new three-and-a-half-year contract with Saracens, the Gallagher Premiership Rugby club have announced.
Itoje, 24, who started out in Saracens’ academy, made his 100th senior appearance for the club earlier this season.
“Saracens is delighted to announce Maro Itoje has committed his future to the club,” read a statement on their official website. “The 24-year-old, who became a Sarries centurion in October, has put pen to paper on a deal until the summer of 2022.”
Itoje, who signed his first professional contract seven years ago, is widely regarded as one of the best second rows in world Rugby.
“I’m really pleased to be staying on at Saracens,” he said. “I’ve been at the club for 10 years now so I’m really excited to see what the future holds for this great team.”
Director of Rugby Mark McCall added: “At Saracens, we take pride in developing players from within.
“Maro is an exceptional young man, on and off the field, and it’s been a privilege seeing him develop. We are thrilled he is staying with us.
“He is part of a large group of homegrown players who have committed their futures to the club. We are excited about exploring their potential and where we can go as a team.”
Itoje made his senior debut for Saracens against Cardiff Blues in 2014 before captaining England Under-20s to the Junior World Championship title.
He was appointed Saracens captain aged 20 and has led the London-based club to back-to-back Champions Cup successes and three Premiership titles.
Itoje has made 26 senior appearances for England and played in all three Tests for the British & Irish Lions during their drawn series in New Zealand in 2017.
Rory Best stacks up the latest snapshots on a life in Test Rugby, and stores them safely in a box in his home office.
The Ireland captain, flanked by his young children on the Aviva Stadium pitch, toasting the nation’s first-ever home win over New Zealand.
The Ulsterman, proudly holding his OBE at Buckingham Palace. The evergreen hooker, saluting Ireland’s third Grand Slam in a snow-capped Twickenham.
Moments frozen in time on a stellar 2018. But stacked up and stored away those pictures and memories must be, if Best and Ireland are to make yet more history in World Cup year.
“In years to come as a family we’ll get to look back on the photos, we’ll talk about the New Zealand game, the first ever Irish team to beat New Zealand at home,” Best told Press Association Sport.
“My children will always be able to say they were on the pitch afterwards that day.
“They’ll be able to jog their memories through photos.
“There isn’t really time to sit down and talk about it all at length now, but people are very kind, sending us photos and the like.
“We’ve pictures of the children with the Six Nations trophies.
“Those pictures are stored in a box in my office.
“And when the time is right, we’ll take them out again.”
Ireland will be hard-pressed to improve upon their stunning 2018, that culminated with the superlative 16-9 win over the back-to-back world champion All Blacks in Dublin.
Joe Schmidt’s men completed the Six Nations clean sweep by downing England in London, in a tournament that started with Johnny Sexton’s monster match-winning drop-goal against France in Paris.
Best captained Ireland through the lot, then received his OBE from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace at the tail-end of November.
This is rarefied air for any Irishman, but will only grow thinner still as 2019 unfolds.
All that history, all those accolades cannot help Ireland in their quest to retain that Six Nations crown, nor touch uncharted World Cup territory in Japan in the autumn.
A maiden World Cup semi-final looms large as a target, but the neutrals keep gaining confidence that Ireland could swipe the Webb Ellis Cup itself.
While Best hopes to make full sense of his career highlights some way off in the future, the farmer from Banbridge remains delighted to be able to share the successes with his family.
“To be able to go to the palace and be able to bring my Mum and Dad, my wife Jodie and my children, was brilliant,” said Best.
“If I were just at home farming, I’d very surprised at 36 to be invited to the palace to receive an OBE.
“But my family have been too, and it’s always been important to me to be able to share those moments with them.
“Leading up to big games I wouldn’t speak to my family too much on a Thursday or a Friday, other than to make sure they are okay.
“Unless it’s something major my wife would perhaps not tell me until after the match.
“She doesn’t want me worrying about things, and that support is invaluable. Those are the sacrifices they make.”
Best boasts a higher win rate as Ireland captain than either Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell, but is quick to share the credit.
While the savvy hooker mediates well with referees, he also provides an open forum for peerless quarterback Johnny Sexton and warrior flanker Peter O’Mahony to colour Ireland’s approach.
“The characters we have, they have a lot of intellectual property, and I think it would be foolish to try to do everything yourself, to try to be the sole voice, when you’ve so much there,” said Best.
“You’ve guys that have captained the Lions in Test matches, guys who have played on multiple Lions tours, there’s a lot of experience, a lot of quality players.
“And I’d like to think one of my strengths is just to be a bit more of a balance in the middle of it all.
“I’m not ridiculously laid back, but I try not to get too uptight or clouded with my judgement.
“I have a great relationship with Johnny (Sexton); he knows how to run a game and doesn’t need me coming to tell him what to do.
“He knows all the right things to do, he’s done it time and again.
“It’s really important that he and Pete (O’Mahony) feel it’s an environment where they can say whatever they want.
“That firstly I won’t get offended, and secondly that the team can hear it and understand what they want.
“I’ve really enjoyed captaining Ireland for that very reason, it’s a great leadership group.
“If you can work together well as well as get on with each other well, it’s a great place to be.”