Revitalised Dubai Exiles are heading into the lion’s den of Bahrain this weekend intent on “keeping the season alive” amid a resurgence in fortune.
Jacques Benade’s men leaped back into the top four last weekend with a gritty 32-27 triumph in the Dubai derby with Hurricanes at an emotionally-charged Sevens Stadium.
With West Asia Premiership dreams dashed a long time ago in light of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Harlequins being streets ahead of the rest this season, Exiles, Jebel Ali Dragons and Canes have long been locked into a battle to make the end of season play-offs for the West Asia Cup – which has become a coveted major trophy in the last three years.
Victory over their famous foes a week ago saw Exiles leapfrog Canes and Dragons into third spot, with just four points separating the trio.
Louie Tonkin’s Bahrain are on the cusp of claiming the title as they sit nine points ahead of second-placed Quins, but Exiles’ all-action Northern Irish lock Stephen Ferguson is relishing his side’s trip west.
“As you know, Louie has his boys well drilled and Bahrain at home are class,” said Ferguson, whose side have been back to something approaching their best in recent weeks after a season plagued by crippling injuries.
“The boys are excited to get over there and play in front of the biggest crowd of the season. We have some big boys back and are confident going over there that we can take something from the game.
“We always back ourselves and the last month we have been back playing rugby in patches like the days of old. If we can play 60-80 minutes of rugby like that then we’d be laughing.
“All that matters now is staying in the top four in both competitions and keeping the season alive with loads of silverware up for grabs.”
Exiles have won three of their last four games and even scored a shed load of points in a 57-31 defeat to Quins on January 11.
They came through a tough test last week against Mike Wernham’s Canes – with both sets of players paying tribute to Lourens Oberholzer, one of the Canes’ founding members in 1999, who had passed away at the end of January.
Ferguson added: “Last week was a cracker at The Sevens, the kids from the HSBC youth tournament stayed and the crowd was unreal, it was emotional as a Canes member recently passed and we had a minute’s silence. A great touch from all.
“The game was tough but someone had to win, another 10 minutes and it might have gone the other way. All credit to Canes, some thumping tackles and great tries scored.”
Despite the fact his side have one hand on the Premiership trophy – Bahrain would be crowned champions with any sort of win against their visitors and anything other than a Quins victory at Dubai Eagles – Tonkin is not planning a victory parade.
“We need to win the next two games. It’s very important for us to secure first place so we can secure home play-off matches,” said the Welshman.
The two sides played out a ferocious contest last March when Tonkin’s side survived a late fightback from Benade’s men to clinch the West Asia Cup – a maiden trophy in eight years – with a 47-25 triumph.
“It was a great game and a great occasion for Bahrain RFC – but speaking honestly everyone knows that they didn’t come to us that day with a full team which was disappointing,” added Tonkin. “We know they are a much stronger prospect this week.”
In other games, Quins will realistically look to cement runners-up spot and a home cup semi at Eagles, while Dragons and Canes meet in an intriguing encounter at The Sevens – both sides need victory to enhance their chances of finishing in the top four.
20:00 Dubai Hurricanes v Jebel Ali Dragons
17:00 Bahrain v Dubai Exiles
19:00 Dubai Eagles v Abu Dhabi Harlequins
Tomos Williams will make his Six Nations debut for Wales in Friday’s tournament opener against France.
The Cardiff Blues scrum-half, who featured in six Tests last year, has been preferred to Gareth Davies for the game in Paris.
Head coach Warren Gatland has announced two other changes from the side who beat South Africa in November, with Scarlets prop Rob Evans and Blues flanker Josh Navidi both gaining call-ups.
Toulon centre Mathieu Bastareaud has been left out of the France team for Friday’s Guinness Six Nations opener against Wales in Paris.
The experienced defensive linchpin makes way as Les Bleus head coach Jacques Brunel hands a Test debut to 19-year-old Toulouse centre Romain Ntamack alongside Wesley Fofana in midfield.
Ntamack is the son of former France wing Emile Ntamack, who made his Test debut against Wales 25 years ago and won 46 caps.
Ntamack has been a key figure behind Toulouse’s resurgence in the Top 14 and Heineken Champions Cup this term, helping them to secure a European quarter-final appointment with Racing 92 later this season.
Brunel has announced a team that also sees a call-up for another newcomer in Montpellier lock Paul Willemse.
Elsewhere, experienced Clermont Auvergne scrum-half Morgan Parra returns to the starting XV and he is partnered at half-back by his club colleague Camille Lopez.
There are also opportunities for the likes of Toulouse full-back Maxime Medard, Bordeaux-Begles prop Jefferson Poirot and Clermont flanker Arthur Iturria in a side skippered by hooker Guilhem Guirado.
France have not won the Six Nations title since 2010, while they arrive in this season’s tournament following a disappointing autumn campaign that saw them beaten by South Africa and Fiji.