There are numerous ways teams will be preparing for this weekend’s Dubai Rugby Sevens – but not many can claim to have tested their mettle against the current Olympic champions.
But that’s exactly what Jebel Ali Dragons have been doing as they prepare to knock three-time defending Gulf Men’s League champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins off their perch.
It’s a perch Dragons scaled not too long ago, winning five tournaments in a six-year span from 2009-13, before Quins’ era of success began and coincided with Dragons’ demise.
It’s a special tournament for Dragons and everyone connected with the club, one they’d love to win even more in their 25th anniversary year.
They may have felt they had bitten off more than they can chew, as they warmed up for the Sevens with a ‘friendly’ run-out against the Rio 2016 gold medalists in Dubai on Sunday that could be described as anything but friendly.
“It’s was meant to be a game of scrag (level up from touch) and quickly turned into some big shots from the Fijian lads after we scored our first try,” said Dragons’ New Zealand pocket rocket flanker Matt Henry.
“We agreed it would be a conditioned game of ‘grab’ but it quickly escalated into some big hits and carries from both sides. I was the unlucky recipient of one hit and got absolutely smashed,” revealed Dragons Scottish skipper and scrum-half Ross Samson.
The Flying Fijians beat Dragons nine tries to two during a game played over three quarters, the highlight being a mazy run from Dragons’ Fijian centre Saki Nasau that almost resulted in a memorable score.
Meanwhile, Dubai Eagles, who lent the Fijians their Dubai Sports City training facility, were also granted a quarter and were downed three tries to nil.
The Dubai duo had stepped in to help the Pacific Islanders after their initial plans organised by an international management company had fallen through – something similar had seen Fiji assisted by Quins in recent years.
Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn had arranged accommodation for the Fijians, put up at JLT’s Bonnington Tower in JLT at short notice, as well as use of Base 3 gym facilities, while Eagles provided their pitch.
It will no doubt have been a welcome gesture for Fiji and coach Gareth Baber, who took over from gold medal-winning coach Ben Ryan at the start of the year, and forged yet stronger ties between the nation and UAE rugby.
Dragons, meanwhile, feel their Sevens preparations were supremely enhanced, even if they had to take a few bumps and bruises in the process.
“It was an amazing experience,” added Henry.
“We got a huge amount out of it all. They’ve exposed our weaknesses like most teams we will come up against could never do, so that’s invaluable heading into this Sevens week.
“All the boys were pumped to get out there and play, and I think we loved seeing Saki (Nasau) turn their winger inside out.
“This next week is huge for us as a club and we have a full sevens squad of about 30 putting in a lot of extras. I think you’ll see a Dragons contingent like no other on and off the field next weekend.”
Having lost in the final to Quins a year ago, former Scotland sevens player Samson says Dragons have a burning desire to win this year.
“It’s no secret that Dubai Sevens is our favourite time of year as a club and we will be doing absolutely everything we can to win every tournament we are in with our ones, twos, super threes and vets,” said Samson.
“We were delighted to be able to help them and Stu pulled out all the stops to make sure they got sorted.
“It was good to get a taste of the physicality and fitness required at that level and any mistakes by us were quickly punished.
“We held our own in defence and scored two tries against them as well as a few clean line breaks so it was nice to see these guys were human and made mistakes too.”
Gulf Men’s League history:
2008 Dubai Dragons 41 Dubai Exiles 12
2009 Dubai Dragons 47 Dubai Hurricanes 12
2010 Barrelhouse Yobs 22 Dubai Exiles 15
2011 Jebel Ali Dragons 29 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 7
2012 Jebel Ali Dragons 14 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 5
2013 Jebel Ali Dragons 19 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 7
2014 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 27 Doha 5
2015 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 36 Al Ain Amblers 14
2016 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 26 Jebel Ali Dragons 14
The club won five straight Gulf Men’s League titles from 2008-13 (08 and 09 as Dubai Dragons before Jebel Ali was incorporated into the name in 2010).
But Dragons have been left out in the cold as fierce rivals Abu Dhabi Harlequins caught fire in recent editions, winning three successive trophies of their own.
They will have felt particularly burned by last year’s 26-14 defeat in the final that earned Quins their hat-trick triumph.
But Dragons are stirring under director of rugby Henry Paul and have enjoyed a great start to the 15s season. And in a year in which they are celebrating their 25th anniversary, chairman Stuart Quinn believes it is time the beast awoke from its sevens slumber.
“The Sevens is very important to the Dragons and has been for a very long time,” said Quinn.
“We’ve been very successful in it but in the past years we have tended to be the bridesmaids and not the brides, so we want to change that this year.
“Not only for the club, but the sponsors, players and all the people that have put an effort into this year, which is a big year with the anniversary.
“Everyone is very excited for the Sevens, I think there is a lot of pressure on us from ourselves having come so close last year. We really want to go one further this year.
“All the boys are excited. It’s the biggest weekend of the year when it comes to rugby in Dubai and the UAE, and we just want to go out there and win. We understand there’s a lot of internal pressure on us.”
Dragons warmed up for this year’s rugby festival – the first leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series – with wins for their senior and vets sides at the Eden Park Sevens last weekend.
The traditional curtain raiser for the Dubai Sevens was short on entries this year, but Quinn still saw it as a valuable opportunity to hone their match sharpness ahead of the tournament, which kicks off on November 30.
“We’re really proud of the club for fielding three teams in the tournament,” said Quinn.
“Our Vets were keen to retain the cup they won last year and our ones will be happy to get winning feeling. It was great to have a hit out against some opposition, get any final technical points run through.
“It was a run-out against opposition we were unfamiliar with. Getting rid of the technical rusty bits and starting to work together.
“Sevens is that game that if you switch off for two seconds you can lose to a team on paper that you should be beating, so we’re very aware of that. We want to be the best prepared team.”
New Lanka Lions captain Zalique Jayah is determined to regain the Gulf Men’s Open title at next month’s Dubai Rugby Sevens after relinquishing their grip on it last year.
Former Wesley and Colombo Hockey and Football Club three-quarter Jayah will be leading the side, also known as the Ceylon Warriors, for the first time at the tournament, which begins on November 30 at The Sevens Stadium.
The Lions are bolstered by a raft of fresh young talent, and Jayah says there is only one aim.
“I’m really honoured to become the captain of Lanka Lions and thank the committee for supporting me and the boys and having faith in me to lead this side,” said Jayah, 27, who captained Wesley College in 2008 and represented Southern Sharks at the Carlton International Sevens in Sri Lanka in 2013.
“I hope to give my best to the team and expect the same from boys with the aim of lifting the cup.”
Jayah will be able to call upon the services of Madisha Silva, who led the Lions to an historic triumph in Dubai in 2015 as they won the Gulf Men’s Open title for the first time.
“We have a very good set of boys who are very keen on winning the cup this year,” added Jayah, an Emirates cabin crew member who is playing in the Dubai Sevens for the fourth year.
“We have many new players coming in and they are gelling into the team very nicely.”
Former Trinity College, Kandy, players Dilshan Kelaniyangoda, Hilmy Mohammed and Anojan Balasundaram are the other experienced players in the side, which has been infused by new blood in Tharindu Malikge and Miyuru Sandaruwan.
Dubai Exiles youngsters Adil Deen and UAE sevens international Jerry Kilicanasau also give them a cutting edge.
The Lions will get the chance to get their team combinations and strategies right when they compete in the Eden Park Sevens, a traditional warm-up tournament to the Dubai Sevens for local teams, which is taking place at The Sevens this weekend.
Lanka Lions coach Richard Murcott, who guided the side to a historic double of Eden Park and Gulf Men’s Open success in 2015, says they have learnt from the mistakes of last year where they crashed out in the semi-finals.
“We didn’t recover enough from injuries. We had quite a lot of the squad carrying injuries. It has been taken care of this year,” said the former Havelocks coach who will be unleashing a new strategy this year.
“We are going to work towards the strengths of side which of course is our speed and agility. Having said that we will have to change our patterns because teams have learnt it now.”
How seriously the Lions are taking this year’s tournament can be gauged by the fact preparations for Dubai began in August with the appointment of a new manager in Jeremy Emmanuel, with Kilicanasau as assistant coach.
“We won’t be committing a lot into set-pieces but when required we will change our plans,” added Murcott.
“We will try these new patterns on Friday and see whether it’s going to work for us in the Dubai Sevens.”
Former Sri Lanka and Arabian Gulf legend Roger Rodrigo, chairman of Lanka Lions Sports Club, expressed his gratitude to the team sponsors, including Ice Watch, Sri Lankan Airlines, Suren Agencies and World Wide.