With many people heading home hoping for some snow and dreaming of turkey with Christmas approaching, all Robbie Cameron and Gareth Venter want under their trees are a perfect record going into 2017.
Dubai Exiles 2nds and Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds meet at The Sevens Friday with the only two 100 per cent records of the UAE Conference season on the line.
Dragons, last year’s beaten Conference finalists, are top of the early season table with seven wins from seven having scored just shy of 300 points so far.
They travel to rivals Exiles, who have been in stunning form themselves. They trail Dragons by five points having played a game less, with six wins from six, although they have incredibly shipped just a miserly 11 points.
With no game for their stacked first team this weekend, Dragons coach Robbie Cameron said he had the option of bringing in several players to bolster Dragons’ ranks, though fly-half Dan Bell is likely to be the only one.
“We’ve got a strong side, my problem was choosing to keep players from the ones putting their hands up, and being loyal to boys who have got us to seven wins from seven,” said the Scotsman.
“That’s what I’ve done. We’re not bringing any regular first team players. Dan Bell’s started once or twice and has been on the bench for the firsts so he’ll come back in, but we’re certainly not loading the squad. We are still strong without doing that.
“It’s still pretty much the second team, and we know the Exiles will be the same. It’s shaping up to be an absolute cracking game.
“I want to stick with the boys that got us here, it has to be that way. We’ve got guys like Sammy Ewing not getting in, he’s got a UAE cap, and Ian Overton left us and went to Hurricanes, he didn’t play for us. We’re recruited pretty well which has helped because all sides are stronger.”
This Christmas cracker is set up nicely between the league’s strongest sides with Dragons having three more games left and Exiles four before the Conference splits into the Top 6 and Bottom 5 in the new year.
Exiles coach Gareth Venter has bemoaned the loss of several players who have already joined the Emirates exodus for Christmas, while six players are missing as they are in the Philippines on international duty with the UAE Under-19 side.
“It’s difficult this time of the year with many boys away already on holiday but it should still be a good game,” said Venter.
“There’s just been an exodus – most of our teachers all out of town and six of our U-19s that usually start for the seconds are on UAE duty.
“I believe it will be a tough battle upfront and whoever controls the breakdown will have ball to put away the backs – of which both teams have pace and skill.”
Abu Dhabi Harlequins head to Bahrain Friday hoping to sign off for 2016 with one more win that will make it a perfect end to the year.
Mike McFarlane’s men lead the way in both the West Asia Premiership and UAE Premiership, with four wins and a draw from their opening five WAP games.
They have played a game less than second-placed Jebel Ali Dragons yet hold a two-point advantage over Henry Paul’s resurgent side.
They enter the final domestic game of the year on a high after winning a third straight Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Rugby Sevens earlier this month.
The only blemish on their record is a 23-23 home draw with Doha in October, but despite their early dominance, McFarlane insists there won’t be any slacking off with perhaps one eye on Christmas.
“The boys had one session off and came roaring back into training,” said McFarlane following Quins’ Sevens triumph. “The players are relentless in training and know full well they are fighting for a spot in one of three sides which we field on Friday.
“The boys have worked tirelessly since early pre-season and are now pumped to finish this half of the season positively.”
Another side on the up are Friday’s hosts, who have won three and lost two of their WAP games, and sit in third.
Coach Louie Tonkin has further improved the west Asia men after they made strides last season, and he is hugely encouraged that the visit of Quins is the start of five home games from their remaining seven league fixtures.
“We’re really excited,” said Tonkin, whose side haven’t played at home since the opening night of the season, which yielded a superb 51-10 victory against Dragons way back on September 23.
“We had a really good result that night and have had four really difficult away trips with mixed fortunes, but had nine important points which puts us in a really good place.
“Seven games left and five are at home so we really know how important those home games are. We know about the threat of Harlequins, they’ve been the most consistent side so far, top of the league, so we know they’re a real threat and full of talent.
“We know the enormity of the challenge but we’re really excited to play at home. There’ll be a big crowd and people are looking forward to watching a good game of rugby before they go away for Christmas.”
After opening wins against Dragons and Dubai Hurricanes, Bahrain lost two straight to Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Saracens, but bounced back with a gritty 18-15 win in Doha in early November.
“We had a really good win five weeks ago in Doha which we felt was a bit of a turning point for us. We clicked,” added the Welshman.
“We’ve had three season ending injuries, but we’ve got a good squad and we feel we can put out a squad capable of winning if we perform well, and we know we’re going to have to play out of our skin to pick up a result. We’re optimistic.”
Thoughts may be turning towards Christmas and jetting home for the holidays, and both Dubai Hurricanes and Doha are hoping to give themselves an early present with a final West Asia Premiership win of 2016.
Doha travel to Canes tomorrow with both sides in need of a festive season pick-me-up.
Doha lost at home, a place they like to feel is impenetrable, last time out against Bahrain, while Canes are at least on the up following successive wins.
James Ham’s men started the season with three straight defeats, but then beat reigning west Asia and UAE champions Dubai Exiles before following it up a week later with another narrow win over Abu Dhabi Saracens.
Both teams are depleted ahead of the meeting at The Sevens, but Canes captain Dave Knight says that will not be an excuse.
“The boys are looking forward to it, it’s a chance to get some revenge from the Dubai Sevens and to also put what was a disappointing sevens campaign behind us,” said Knight, whose side were beaten 20-10 by Doha in the pool stages at the Sevens earlier this month.
“We want to get the momentum going again in 15s which we had before the break. We’ve got a few boys out injured and Doha are a solid outfit so we know it will be tough.
“They’re the only team that have taken points off Harlequins so we need to start strong. Hopefully we’ll have a decent home crowd to get the boys firing early. A good result puts us right in contention for playoffs so we’re hoping to sign of 2016 with a bang.”
“Those two strong wins feel a while ago now, so we’re hoping we can get into our structures and allow ourselves to play from the go,” added head coach James Ham.
“Doha are always a very strong outfit but hopefully we can take advantage of them coming over to us and go into another break with points recognising the hard work that’s been put in so far this season.”
Doha counterpart Alex Natera is travelling with a squad missing 18 players, but still feels his side are capable of victory.
“It’s been a long time between games and coming off a home loss to Bahrain just makes it even longer,” he said.
“The positioning of this fixture so close to Christmas and after school term finishing means we are missing a huge number of first team and first team potential players – 18 to be exact.
“I’m still very happy that the side we are putting out will not only be competitive but can come away with four points. A real testament to the depth in the club at the moment but we will miss our regular 1st team starters.
“I don’t think motivation is an issue with the squad we have traveling. If anything the boys are chomping at the bit. It’s been a while between innings plus fringe players want to make a statement and stake their claims on the jersey while their more senior counterparts are away.”