Ross Samson insists the pain and controversy of losing the Dubai Sevens final to Dubai Exiles has been firmly shunted to the back of the minds of Jebel Ali Dragons’ players as the two behemoths prepare to clash in yet another barnstorming West Asia Premiership fixture on Friday.
The reverse fixture in October was the game of the WAP season so far, and their meeting in the Gulf Men’s League final in December was also one for the ages as Exiles upset the odds to win a first Dubai Sevens title in 11 years.
They also upset Dragons in other ways, with Jebel Ali lodging a complaint with tournament organisers after discovering Exiles allegedly rolled on two extra substitutes.
And, just when it seemed the Premiership was set to settle down after a monumental three weeks of fixtures between title-chasing trio Dragons, Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain, up pops this fixture.
Two back-to-back defeats for Bahrain has seen Exiles vault back into the reckoning for silverware, and with the added needle between the two teams, this could be another fiery clash.
Despite the two recent spectacles and the furore over the Sevens, Dragons skipper Samson insists his side are over their disappointment.
“We have put the Sevens out of our mind now, they were the deserved winner as they scored more points than us,” said the Scottish scrum-half.
“We have a very clear set of goals now that we are working towards.
“I think both teams have played a lot of rugby since the last game and have improved, so it should be an interesting game.
“They are a quality side who are very physical and will pose a different threat from our last game against Quins.”
Exiles stormed into the 2017/18 season with big wins against Dubai Eagles and Dubai Hurricanes, but Jacques Benade’s men came unstuck against the top trio – losing to all three by a combined total of just 11 points as they slipped out of title contention.
But three straight wins have seen Exiles surge back into the picture, coupled with two Bahrain defeats. Following their win against Canes last week they cut the gap to Dragons in second place to a point, while they trail leaders Quins by just two.
And Northern Irish lock Stephen Ferguson said their recent form and the Sevens triumph has re-installed belief in the 2015/16 Asia champions.
“It’s a massive, massive game,” said Ferguson.
“Dragons away is always a big game. And this year especially, they owe us one after we beat them at the Dubai Sevens. And the last game at home we scored a late try that was disallowed, so that’ll be fresh in our minds.
“For us, those three defeats combined (to the top three) were by a total of 10 points, so it’s all to play for.
“It’s a season of two halves. This half, we are ready. We already have three wins this year and we will be looking to make it four. Not only are we going to challenge, after that Sevens win, we have the confidence to try and win everything.”
It’s been a strange season for Dubai Hurricanes, too good to be mired down in a relegation battle, yet seemingly unable to quite break into the elite of the West Asia Premiership.
While Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain battle for the title and Abu Dhabi Saracens and Dubai Eagles scrap to avoid finishing bottom of the table, Canes find themselves marooned in mid-table.
Defeat to fierce rivals Exiles was a fifth loss in eight games this season. Their three wins have come home and away against Sarries, the other at Eagles, but captain Dave Knight feels they have no-one to blame but themselves.
“We’re very disappointed after last week so are looking to bounce back,” Knight said of last week’s 36-11 loss to Exiles.
“We feel like we are good enough to be in that top four but we are our own worst enemy and can’t seem to put a complete performance in.
“It’s a must win this week and hopefully will give us some confidence going forward.”
Eagles, meanwhile, will look to bounce back from their own demoralising defeat to Sarries last week, when they take on a solid Canes side.
For Eagles captain Conor Coakley, coach Andrew O’Driscoll and scrum-half Josh Ives, it’s a particularly poignant encounter as they’ll be heading to their former home at The Sevens.
“For me personally, I used to play for Hurricanes so I’m looking forward to it,” said Coakley.
“I’ve got some good friends there and I’m looking forward to a tough, gritty game. They’ve got a big pack now but I think we’re going to match them.
“We’ve had a couple of difficult weeks, but the guys have responded really well. On Sunday we hit the gym together at Dubai Sports City and had a good chat about the game.
“We got together Monday night and got focused, I loved the attitude. We’ve definitely got a focus for this game. It means a lot to the team. We thought in the last encounter (Canes lost 28-12) it was a close one and we didn’t feel there was much between us, so we’re targeting a win.”
Elsewhere on Friday, Bahrain may have been bloodied following back-to-back West Asia Premiership defeats – their first two of the season – but they will be buoyed as they get set to welcome Abu Dhabi Saracens for the first of four straight home games.
Louie Tonkin’s men came off worse in defeat to Jebel Ali Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the last two weeks with Dubai Exiles leapfrogging them as they slid six points off the pace.
But after a testing period, Tonkin’s side can now look to recover with some favourable home fixtures, while the Welshman is also relishing the return of several injured players, including skipper and last year’s player of the season, Adam Wallace.
Even though the home run begins with the visit of lowly Sarries, Tonkin will be aware his side are facing a team fresh from their first win of the season against Dubai Eagles last week – a victory that saw Sarries halt a run of seven straight defeats.
“We have four games at home and two of which are against Exiles and Dragons, so we’re very much still in the picture (for the title),” said Tonkin.
“But, we know we have to win all our games now.
“We’re also chuffed we are finally getting to welcome back some of our best backs from last year. Greg Heath, our top try scorer, and Adam Wallace, our player of the year, who have both been out since the Western Clubs Champions League. And also our 10, Ross Preedy, who’s back from his ACL reconstruction.”
Travelling away, especially outside the UAE, is always a tall order for teams, but Sarries can take huge comfort from last week’s win, which saw them come off the foot of the table.
And captain Jonny Taylor said: “The mood has been really good this week. A few new faces have also arrived which is great news for the club.”
Mike McFarlane insists Abu Dhabi Harlequins are eager to reassert their dominance at Zayed Sports City after responding from a first home defeat in over three years last week with a victory.
A slender 20-17 loss to Jebel Ali Dragons on January 19 saw Quins lose at home for the first time since being beaten 10-6 by city rivals Saracens on January 16, 2014.
Having seen their proud run finally come to a halt last week, McFarlane’s side set about starting this fresh streak in fine style after beating Bahrain 27-5 on Friday.
McFarlane is determined to ensure that the home defeat was only a blip.
“We are proud of that record and of course would like this to be the start of another one,” said McFarlane.
“Everyone tries to make their home a fortress but to actually do it, especially in such a competitive league, is testament to the players’ commitment and success.”
With Dragons having a bye last weekend, Quins’ win inches them back into top spot of the West Asia Premiership, a point ahead of Henry Paul’s side.
“I was really happy with our set-piece against Bahrain which I thought gave us a good platform,” said McFarlane.
“I thought we could have taken further advantage of it also, however, mauls were somehow spoiled and our front row had a hard time even though they were on the front foot – something we will focus on during video analysis this week.”
Five trophies won last season may suggest a golden period of dominance in the capital, but Quins are undergoing a period of transition as their rivals rise to the challenge.
They have lost key players William Umu, Patrick Jenkinson and Brian Geraghty – and had to cope with the shock retirement of captain Ben Bolger on the eve of the 2017/18 campaign.
Although most clubs in the region lose players due to the nature of an expat league, Quins are without a staggering 13 players from last season’s quintuple-winning side.
“It’s been incredibly difficult to rebuild the squad, embed structures and patterns that suit new personnel whilst ensuring we reach the expectations we set ourselves each session, game and season,” added McFarlane.
“The biggest thing we have is our culture which we pride ourselves on and which pulls us through tough situations.
“We’ve lost 13 first team players from last year. We currently have 23 injuries throughout our first and second team squads with seven out for the season.”
The reigning West Asia Premiership winners have a bye this weekend, but then face two tough games on the road – against Dubai Hurricanes and resurgent Dubai Exiles.