Dragons – favourites last year but beaten in an epic to-and-fro contest with Dubai Exiles – went down to a slender 21-19 defeat to Canes in Saturday morning’s semi-final.
Bahrain, meanwhile, defeated by Canes in the quarter-finals a year ago, progressed to the last four this year, only to be beaten 12-10 by Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
“We were gutted to not go all the way as I felt the guys played well enough to win it and deserved more,” Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin said of the efforts of his team.
“But very proud of the way my players conducted themselves and dedicated themselves to the weekend.”
Bahrain finished second behind Mike Wernham’s men in Pool A but said he was happy for the side who last lifted the Gulf Men’s League title in 2007.
“I’m delighted for Canes and it’s great to see them do well. They looked really good, they had a good mix of youth and experience and I just think they had more pace than everyone and were well coached.”
Dragons skipper Ross Samson was disappointed not to reach successive finals, but also offered his congratulations to Canes.
“We were frustrated we didn’t get in to the final, we should have beaten Canes in the semi but fair play to them going on and getting the job done in the final,” he said.
It’s wonderful to see another name engraved onto a winners’ trophy in domestic rugby – different victors have been few and far between in recent years.
Up until April, UAE rugby had been dominated by Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Dubai Exiles over the last four years. The pair had won 14 of expatriate rugby’s 18 trophies since the 2014/15 season.
Jebel Ali Dragons joined the party at the start of 2018 when they hoisted a long overdue piece of silverware – their epic West Asia Premiership victory was a first trophy in four years.
It had been even longer for Bahrain – exiled on the fringes of west Asia – whose West Asia Cup triumph earned them a maiden success after eight barren years.
Last year’s Premiership hinted at an exciting new era of fierce competition ahead. Quins, Exiles, Dragons and Bahrain all went toe-to-toe with one another. In the end Exiles claimed the Dubai Sevens and UAE Premiership double, Dragons won the West Asia Premiership – rugby’s most coveted title – and Bahrain had the West Asia Cup.
Hurricanes? Who are they? They were nowhere to be seen – just good enough to avoid a relegation scrap between Abu Dhabi Saracens and fledgling Dubai Eagles but nowhere near the standard being set by the foursome at the forefront of the domestic game.
But ex-Wales sevens international Matthew Pewtner’s arrival hinted at a shift in a more professional direction – as had the link-up a few years previously with namesake Super Rugby side the Hurricanes, from whom Canes acquired Sam Tufuga and Gerard Faitotoa last October.
Pewtner came in around the same time as backs coach, ambitiously stating he one day hoped to get Canes playing on Pitch 1 in the main Sevens Stadium, where the Gulf Men’s League final is always staged.
Pewtner played with Wales all around the world, but missed out on Dubai twice through injury, so it was ironic he should appear there for the first time as a coach.
Excellent work has also been done by Mike Wernham at Canes. The Englishman is a schoolteacher by profession, which has no doubt helped drill his side into shape during his 22 months in charge.
Treble winners in gulf rugby as recently as 2010/11, Canes have certainly taken a tumble since then.
When the 15s season returns, Bahrain and Quins will remain the two teams to beat in the West Asia Premiership. But while 2018/19 may be a bit soon for Hurricanes to change the forecast on that front, a storm is definitely brewing.
Canes beat serial Sevens winners Abu Dhabi Harlequins 24-14 in Saturday’s Gulf Men’s League final to end a barren run at the tournament stretching back 11 years.
So long ago was their last triumph, the venue for Saturday’s final – their home ground of The Sevens Stadium – hadn’t even been built yet.
That 2007 victory – their first Dubai Sevens title – had come the final year the tournament was held at the old home of rivals and city neighbours Exiles’ Al Awir ground.
Tries from ex-Jebel Ali Dragons centre Saik Naisau, Joe Riley, Lewis Anderson and Boris Finck – plus two Finck conversions – proved enough to send Canes to victory against Mike McFarlane’s Quins on Pitch 1, inside the main stadium.
And Finck revealed that negative press – or in Canes’ case, no press at all – played a small part in their triumph.
“There was an article written heading into the Sevens about every other team bar us,” said Canes’ French fly-half Finck.
“We were completely written off and that worked in our favour because no-one expected us to come out firing the way we did.
“I’m still buzzing from the win. Reflecting on it, everyone’s ecstatic. It was an amazing shift put in by the boys all weekend. I believe that our defence won us the tournament, which was class throughout. We put away some big teams.”
Canes surged through their Pool A schedule with three straight wins – including against West Asia Premiership leaders Bahrain and rivals Exiles, the reigning champions. They swept aside Abu Dhabi Saracens in the quarter-finals before a pair of nervy last-four showdowns.
Quins edged Bahrain 12-10 while Canes overcame last year’s finalists Dragons 21-19.
Canes have been steadily building under the tutelage of Mike Wernham and ex-Wales sevens international Matthew Pewtner. The former Dragons man came on board as backs coach a year ago with a keen eye on developing the club into a sevens force.
Canes have spent the few years stuck in obscurity since reaching the UAE Premiership final four years ago and being soundly beaten by Quins. Since then, they’ve bizarrely found themselves sandwiched in between the top and bottom teams in both the UAE and West Asia Premierships – too good to be relegated but not good enough to battle Quins, Exiles, Dragons and Exiles for major honours.
But there has been something stirring this season, with reigning West Asia champions Dragons toppled as Canes sit third in the league, behind Quins and Bahrain.
“The progress we’ve made as a team throughout the season has been class,” added Finck, who heaped praise on coaching duo Wernham and Pewtner.
“The systems in place, the coaching set-up, a lot more professional. Everyone’s buying into it. Did I think we could win the tournament beforehand? Yeah. As soon as the team sheet came out you could tell the skill and pedigree of players we had, it was unreal.
“I know Mike and Matt had a hard time cutting it down to 12 because of the class we had. I still can’t get over it.”