Ahead of the 2019 Dubai Rugby Sevens, we’re looking back at some of the finest matches as Dubai’s oldest sporting event celebrates its 50th anniversary
Dubai Exiles 19 Jebel Ali Dragons 12
Gulf Men’s League final – December 2017
Dubai Exiles are the oldest club in the Middle East and lay claim to being the godfathers of the region’s longest-running sporting event – the Dubai Rugby Sevens.
And so it is only fitting that their triumph in the 2017 Gulf Men’s League final against rivals Jebel Ali Dragons makes the cut for one of the best matches in history.
For a spectacle that has developed from a tiny tournament played on sand in front of a handful of spectators to one of the UAE’s biggest sporting events, watched by 100,000 people annually and featuring the best teams and athletes in sevens rugby, it would be remiss of us to forget the Dubai Sevens’ roots.
Since 1999 the tournament has played host as one of multiple legs of the World Rugby Sevens Series, with New Zealand and South Africa both six-time winners. England, Fiji and Samoa have all also lifted the main cup in the ensuing 20 years, but the tournament’s history goes back way before that – three decades in fact, to 1970, and to Exiles.
A club and tournament created by three British expats – Ken Thomas, Freddie Sherman and Paul Coxon.
For a team so synonymous with the tournament – which only moved to The Sevens Stadium from their old Al Awir ground in 2008 – a decade is a long time without silverware.
In 2017 it had actually been 11 years since Exiles last lifted the Gulf Men’s League trophy. And the way Dragons had been playing in the XVs game that 2017/18 season, as well as at the Sevens itself, they were on fire. They went on to lift the West Asia Premiership title at the end of the campaign, but in December there had seemed little hope of extinguishing their flame or torching their path to sevens glory.
Abu Dhabi Saracens (41-10), Al Ain Amblers (31-12) and Bahrain (42-0) had been blitzed in the group stages. There was no sting in the tail waiting from Kuwait Scorpions in the quarter-finals as Dragons roared to a 63-0 win. Sevens behemoths Abu Dhabi Harlequins offered a stern test in the semis but Dragons edged home 21-19.
The script was seemingly written. And the writing was on the wall when Dragons jumped into an early 12-0 lead. Except, Exiles hadn’t read said script.
Ex-Exiles player Matt Richards burst through to open the scoring after barely a minute and, before they knew it, Jacques Benade’s men were two tries down, Nick McCashin cashing in.
But they kept their composure and reduced the deficit when Tomas Sackmann capitalised on an error and surged over, Durandt Gerber’s conversion making it 12-7.
As Exiles grew in stature, Dragons wilted in the heat, seeing Scott Hayes and Richards sent to the sin-bin in quick succession before the interval for infringing near their own try line.
Exiles seized the initiative and Sackmann went over again to tie the scores; 12-12 with a half to play, the game on a knife-edge.
In a thrilling second half, Thinus Steyn’s superhuman cover tackle with the line looming prevented Richards from restoring Dragons’ lead. A third Dragon, Niko Volavola, was then shown yellow.
Then, Terry Jacobs cut through the defensive line to go in under the posts with 20 seconds remaining – from 12-0 down Exiles led 19-12.
Jebel Ali had one more chance but a knock-on ended a thrilling contest and gave Exiles their first trophy since 2006.