They will be heavy underdogs this weekend, but a full strength Dubai Exiles will go to Bahrain on Friday with nothing to lose and everything to gain in the West Asia Premiership final.
Louie Tonkin’s side will play host to Jacques Benade’s resurgent Exiles, who overcame a crippling injury list at the start of the 2018/19 season and booked a showdown with the dominant force in Gulf rugby this weekend thanks to a gritty 31-16 triumph in Abu Dhabi against Harlequins last Friday.
Bahrain – who are vastly improved in the three years under Welshman Tonkin’s guidance and won a maiden trophy in eight years when they beat Exiles to lift the West Asia Cup a year ago – have been head and shoulders above the competition this term.
They added the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title in pre-season when Quins were beaten. They again tasted disappointment at the Dubai Sevens as Dubai Hurricanes earned a surprising win over Quins but, in the main title race, they are without compare.
Bahrain have plundered 14 wins from 15 Premiership games to top the standings on 68 points – 13 ahead of second-placed Quins, with 577 points scored, 72 more than anyone else, and their 180 points conceded a gargantuan 208 fewer than the next best team (Quins 388).
Still, Exiles have one distinct advantage heading into Friday’s final, they have beaten the behemoths this season – delivering their sole defeat in October – and they will head west with confidence.
“Everyone is buzzing. We seem to be hitting our stride at the right time,” said Exiles’ Northern Irish lock Stephen Ferguson.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves but in finals rugby anything can happen. We beat Bahrain at home and ran them close over there a few weeks ago. Another 10 minutes and who knows what the score would of been.”
Exiles will rightly be buoyed by recent encounters. Despite Bahrain’s rampaging march, Exiles lost just 21-10 in the most recent league fixture, in Bahrain, at the beginning of February.
They are the sole side to inflict defeat on Bahrain this season, winning 31-20 at The Sevens in the first league encounter in October, although they then forfeited the second game a month later. Last season’s cup final will also be fresh in the memory. Bahrain eventually won 47-25 but having led early on, trailed 26-25 on the hour before running away with it in the final 10 minutes.
“I’m really proud of this group of players and they are very excited to travel to Bahrain,” added coach Benade.
“A place we all really enjoy playing in front of a big crowd and against a semi-pro outfit. They have such a strong squad to pick from but we are all looking forward to the challenge.
“They will be very hard to beat but it is a great feeling to be in the final again. Three out of the last four years is a great achievement for the Exiles.
“We have a few things to work on this week from our last game against them but as I said before, very proud of the players to be in the final again. There’s a good atmosphere in this squad and they are enjoying playing together.”
Quins had looked destined for a final date against Bahrain but Exiles led 13-6 at half-time last weekend and, after withstanding immense second half pressure, played an almost flawless second 40 minutes to see out the victory.
“It was just all action, tries, mistakes, yellow cards and scuffles,” added Ferguson. “It was a cracker and to come out with an away win was exceptional. Onwards to Bahrain.”
It was a rather more straightforward night for Bahrain, who finally ended Jebel Ali Dragons’ Premiership defence with a 56-7 mauling.
Tonkin bemoaned that a depleted Dragons were unable to compete, but was happy to progress to Friday’s showpiece.
“It was a good win. A big night for the club with a semi-final at home,” said Tonkin.
“We appreciate Dragons coming to play. It was a shame as it was obvious they had a number of key players missing, some guys who have been in the team a while. They didn’t even have any coaches, which was disappointing.
“They couldn’t give a true account of themselves. As well as they played and their effort was amazing, I think they were quite disappointed after the game, they didn’t give it their best crack with their best team not available.”
On his own team’s performance, he added: “Our boys did pretty well. We scored four tries either side of half-time. We managed territory for the majority of the game, we put the ball behind them and forced errors.
“It was interesting to see Exiles beat Quins at Quins so we know that will be another big and very different challenge this week. We’ve got to dust ourselves down and go again.”
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The Ospreys and Scarlets could merge under radical proposals being discussed for Welsh regional rugby’s future.
The scenario, which Press Association Sport understands is more likely to happen than not, could even unfold in time for next season.
The potential merger will be a focal point of talks held by Wales’ Professional Game Board on Tuesday.
It is a group that comprises representatives from the Welsh Rugby Union, Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons and Cardiff Blues.
Establishing a new professional team in north Wales is also high on the agenda in what would be Welsh rugby’s biggest domestic shake-up since regional teams were established 16 years ago.
It is understood that the favoured plan is to retain four regional teams, but they would comprise north Wales, an Ospreys-Scarlets merger, Blues and Dragons.
The Scarlets currently play at Parc-y-Scarlets in Llanelli, while the Ospreys use Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium for their home games.
Any merger would need to establish a home ground, in addition to issues such as the new team’s name and kit.
So-called Project Reset is being played out against a back-drop of Wales chasing this season’s Six Nations title and a possible Grand Slam.
They face Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday, followed by Ireland in Cardiff seven days later. Victories in both games would secure a first Six Nations clean sweep since 2012.
Around half of Wales’ match-day 23 for the Scotland clash is likely to feature Ospreys and Scarlets players.
And if a merger goes ahead, then players like Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, George North, Ken Owens and Leigh Halfpenny will be part of the same regional squad.
The WRU has not commented on Tuesday’s planned discussions.
Senior Wales players did meet with the governing body last week, though, to discuss a number of issues on the future of regional rugby.
Speaking last week, Wales assistant coach Rob Howley said: “It’s uncertain times, which is disappointing.
“There is a lot of frustration, not only for the best players in Wales, but for their mates in the regions.
“There is an uncertainty about Project Reset, and they would like to know where they are going to be playing next year or in two years’ time.”
Global stars including England captain Owen Farrell and Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton have warned of serious player welfare and integrity concerns over World Rugby’s proposed new competition structure.
The International Rugby Players’ Council held a detailed conference call this week that included nine of the world’s top 10 Test team captains dialling in.
A new global season is due to kick off next year, running until 2032.
Discussions, meanwhile, have also taken place about a new World League that would combine 12 international sides from both hemispheres in a competition running through summer and autumn and culminating with play-offs and a final.
The IRPC said players were “united in their concern” about issues such as player-load challenges from playing multiple Tests across different time zones in consecutive weeks, increased conflicts between club and country demands, plus potential impact on the World Cup and British and Irish Lions tours.
The IRPC also claimed that promotion and relegation will not form part of the new proposal, saying it would prevent Tier Two and emerging nations from accessing top level competitive matches.
It is understood that any World League would have the intention of featuring England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, plus Japan and the United States, who could be invited to join the Rugby Championship.
But if no promotion and relegation is sanctioned, then it could mean countries like Georgia, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga being isolated.
“It seems like a commercial deal on the future of the game is being negotiated at a rapid pace with little consideration given to the important points we raised with World Rugby in November,” Sexton said, in a statement released by the IRPC.
“The issue of player-load has never been so topical. However, it needs to be properly understood.
“To suggest that players can play five incredibly high-level Test matches in consecutive weeks in November is out of touch and shows little understanding of the physical strain this brings.”
Farrell, meanwhile, added: “Players are definitely open to discussing a new global season, but what we develop has to work with the club game in order to reduce conflict, deal with player release issues and make sure their welfare is looked after.
“The proposal presented to us at the moment doesn’t seem to have considered this properly and shows no signs of improving this already difficult situation.”
And New Zealand skipper Kieran Read said: “After listening to the issues raised by many of the players, we need to be very careful that we balance the commercial needs of the game with the player welfare needs and ensure the quality and integrity of matches meets expectations.
“Fans want to see meaningful games. They don’t want to see fatigued players playing a reduced quality of Rugby as part of a money-driven, weakened competition that doesn’t work for the players or clubs.
“With new technologies, new broadcast deals and new money coming into the sport, this is a crucial moment for Rugby and one that many players are generally excited about.
“However, we have to make sure that the integrity of the game and welfare of the players is protected.”
International Rugby Players chief executive Omar Hassanein confirmed player views had been conveyed to World Rugby on several occasions.
He said: “World Rugby are failing to respect the players’ views and genuinely engage on the issues.
“It will be interesting to see their approach in the coming weeks, knowing the current proposal does not have the players support.”
World Rugby said its commitment to player welfare matters is “unwavering.”
In a statement, the sport’s governing body said: “World Rugby recognises and values the importance of player considerations and input into the annual international competition discussions.
“However, the manner the International Rugby Players (IRP) organisation has expressed these is surprising, given regular engagement throughout this ongoing process.
“World Rugby’s commitment to player welfare matters is unwavering, and we will continue to engage and give full consideration to the welfare of players within the ongoing discussions.
“It is inappropriate to comment on specifics while wider stakeholder consultation, including with IRP, is ongoing.
“However, it is important to note that some assumptions made in the statement regarding the proposed competition structure are inaccurate, and that important matters such as playing load and emerging nation opportunities are at the heart of constructive dialogue on the overall concept.
“As instructed by our executive committee and the Unions, we remain committed to a process of constructive dialogue with all stakeholders, including the IRP, to deliver a model that ensures the best-possible competition and commercial outcomes for all.”