Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Dubai Exiles are set to meet in yet another mouthwatering top-of-the-table clash in the West Asia Premiership – although the protagonists know the door is rapidly closing on anyone who makes a mistake from here on in.
Quins travel to The Sevens for Friday’s game to take on Jacques Benade’s revitalised Exiles – they were defeated in Bahrain last week to end a four-game winning streak.
It should be an intense encounter, with Quins winning 29-25 in the reverse fixture before Christmas at a time when Exiles were not in good form.
And Quins fly-half Luke Stevenson put it simply when he said: “It’s a massive week, which does seem to be the case every week.
“It’s always a tough one against Exiles and they’ve been on a good run of form. The lads are pumped for it and I think we want to go out and show that we deserve to be where we are in the league.”
Exiles counterpart Durandt Gerber is aware another slip this week could spell the end of their title chances.
“The league is tight at the moment and any slip-ups could be costly at this stage,” said the South African.
“We did not do ourselves any favours last weekend in Bahrain with the loss but that’s rugby. I’m looking forward to a good game of rugby. It’s always intense playing Quins and a good game to be part of.”
After a run of three defeats earlier in the season against Quins, Jebel Ali Dragons and Bahrain that saw them slip off the pace of the top three, four wins in a row to start 2018 – including a superb 35-15 victory in the reverse fixture at Dragons – has seen Exiles crash the title party and make it a four-way battle for silverware.
Realistically though, a Quins win on Friday would end the recent high drama between the top four. Win, and win with a bonus point in Dubai, and Quins will maintain their status on top of the standings – with two very winnable home games to finish the season at home to Abu Dhabi Saracens and away at Dubai Eagles.
And coach Mike McFarlane reiterated that this is a “massive week”.
“In such a competitive league the games come thick and fast and this weekend will be no different,” said the Englishman.
“They have an excellent squad and the arrival of Denis Hurley (former Munster player who has become Exiles’ backs coach) has clearly had a huge impact.
“They’ve got a strong set-piece and a good pack which I’m sure they’ll look to use frequently, so it will be a great forward battle. The boys have prepped really well this week and there’s a real focus within the squad, knowing their individual jobs for the team.”
Exiles will especially be keen to bounce back with a win as they have played a game more than the rest of their title rivals and have just one game remaining after Friday.
“There’s a lot at stake,” said Northern Irish forward Stephen Ferguson.
“We’re playing for a home semi (in the West Asia Cup) and bragging rights. The top four is sorted, it’s just about sorting out placings.
“And we know Quins and Dragons have a game in hand so we will want to take maximum points in our last two games, starting with Quins. Quins are a quality side and have awesome finishers from the bench too. So it’ll be an 80 minute affair.”
Elsewhere, Bahrain host Dubai Hurricanes, although you can forgive home coach Louie Tonkin for having one eye on events in Dubai.
And he put it bluntly too, when he said: “If Quins win they are home and dry, if Exiles win we all have a chance.”
The Welshman is wary of a wounded Canes outfit who mathematically made it impossible for themselves to challenge for the West Asia Cup at the end of the season as defeat to Quins left them marooned in fourth place.
“We know Hurricanes can’t qualify for the top four but that makes them a dangerous side, they come with nothing to lose and we’re not taking them lightly,” said Tonkin.
“I’ve said Canes are going to turn someone over this season and we need to make sure it’s not us. We need to get a bonus point win, we need to keep pressure on the teams above us.”
Canes front rower Joe Corcoran stated the whole club is hurting after last week’s disappointing 55-15 defeat to Quins, which also saw Quins advance to the final of the UAE Premiership Cup, where they’ll face Exiles.
“It’s certainly tough to re-group and prepare for the trip to Bahrain given the really disappointing loss to Quins,” he said.
“That said, multiple guys have been given the opportunity to play this weekend so despite the challenge of playing Bahrain away there is a good energy in the group and a strong urge to perform.”
In Friday’s other game, Jebel Ali Dragons will be seeking a bonus-point win at home to struggling Abu Dhabi Saracens.
They are in second place in the table, a point behind Quins, and a maximum win against the side second-bottom is a must if they are to keep the pressure on the title favourites.
But even though they should win comfortably, assistant coach Jonny MacDonald is concentrating on firstly just securing victory.
“It’s pretty clear to us what we have to do for the rest of the season and that’s picking up wins in all of our remaining games and then bonus points as well where we can,” said MacDonald, the former Arabian Gulf international taking joint charge of Dragons with Andy Buist while Henry Paul is helping coach Canada in the Americas Rugby Championship.
“It’s important we focus on getting the win first and then we can worry about the bonus point. We’ve had a good build-up to the game and we are looking forward to it with the boys feeling good and hopefully we can play some good rugby.
“We were disappointed with elements of our game last week against Eagles (Dragons won 57-7), we felt we didn’t control the game for the full 80 so that’s an area we will look to improve on this week against Sarries.”
Sarries will just be happy to get to the end of the campaign intact after a season of strife, but skipper Jonny Taylor is looking forward to getting back to action after a two-week break.
“I think everyone is really eager to get back on the pitch,” said the South African flanker.
“We have a quite a few new players running out as well, which is always good to see. It’s another weekend to go out and build the squad and club.”
Friday’s games (17:00 KO)
Dubai Exiles v Abu Dhabi Harlequins
Bahrain v Dubai Hurricanes
Jebel Ali Dragons v Abu Dhabi Saracens
It seems increasingly likely that an engaging West Asia Premiership title-race is going to come down to the wire following another enthralling weekend of action.
Dubai Exiles were demoted from top spot following a narrow 19-11 defeat in Bahrain – a first defeat in five games – with emphatic wins for Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Jebel Ali Dragons seeing them jump into first and second respectively.
Quins lead the way on 35 points after trouncing Dubai Hurricanes 55-15 at The Sevens, a game which also served as a semi-final for the UAE Premiership Cup – Quins will face Exiles in the final.
They are a point in front of Exiles and head coach Mike McFarlane said: “It’s a good win where our set-piece dominated. It was hot but the depth in quality told with an excellent impact from our bench. Our core skills and patience improved in the second half and we put the game to bed.”
The gap between the top four has been closed from six to four following the weekend, thanks largely to Bahrain’s marginal victory over Jacques Benade’s Exiles.
And coach Louie Tonkin feels the final round of fixtures – when they welcome Dragons on March 9 – will be crucial.
“It’s going to come down to the last game,” said the Welshman.
“There’s some big games left, Quins v Exiles next week is a big one and will play a big part, then it’s us and Dragons in the last round. We’ll end up where we end up.”
Despite all eyes focused firmly on the curtain coming down on the Premiership season in three weeks’ time, Tonkin insists he and his players are trying to stay as focused as possible on one game at a time.
“We’re trying really hard to focus on ourselves, as difficult as it is, taking it one game at a time,” he said.
“We’ve got Canes next week and they’re a very dangerous side, with a great scrum. We’re taking that game as a priority.
“We have to travel then to Eagles but we’re trying to focus on ourselves and not other things. The pleasing thing is Canes can’t catch us now. They’re 11 points behind with two games left so we’re qualified for the West Asia Cup, although we’re desperate for a home semi-final.”
Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn was happy his side got back to winning ways, soaring to a 57-7 bonus point win over Eagles to begin to erase defeat two weeks prior to Exiles.
“The boys looked a lot fresher after a weekend off,” said Quinn.
“It’s important now we go out and win every game and get as many points as we can, both in terms of bonus points and points on the scoreboard. As long as we get that job done, we will end up where we end up.”
And he was impressed with a much-improved Eagles, who will more than likely feel aggrieved at the margin of defeat.
Quinn added: “I think Eagles will be disappointed with their performance because I think they’ve got a lot better and I don’t think they quite deserved the humping they got.
“They’re certainly improving.”
Dubai Exiles head to Bahrain for a mouthwatering West Asia Premiership clash on Friday knowing they need to back up their last result – a 35-15 roasting of Jebel Ali Dragons that saw them ascend to the top of the table for the first time this season.
The to and fro nature of this season’s championship is set to sway yet again this weekend with Bahrain hosting Jacques Benade’s side in yet another match that is sure to have seismic ramifications on the destiny of the trophy.
Exiles sit three points ahead of Abu Dhabi Harlequins, four ahead of Dragons and six ahead of Bahrain, although they have played a game more than all three.
And No8 Jaen Botes insists victory against Dragons must be built upon.
“It’s a big game this weekend for us, we need to back up the performance against Dragons,” said the UAE international.
“We felt a click in the camp against Dragons that we will look to bounce off coming into this weekend. Bahrain are a strong side, well drilled and well coached and it will be some task heading up there. We’re looking forward to the challenge and it should be a good game.”
Benade is without starting centres James Crossley and Terry Jacobs, while influential flanker Matt Mills is also missing. And he believes patience will be key to victory.
“It’s a big game and will definitely be very difficult to come back from Bahrain with a win,” said the South African.
“They are well coached with a good pack and have a half-back partnership that controls the game really well.
“It’s always great to go Bahrain and play there. They have a great set-up with a crowd that is very passionate and want to see the home team doing well.
“We will need to be very disciplined, focus on what we need to do and I keep saying it but we must be patient with the ball.
“It should be a great game and we are all looking forward to a very physical battle.”
Bahrain are right back in the title mix following their 66-0 slaughter of Abu Dhabi Saracens two weeks ago, and coach Louie Tonkin is buoyed by the fact three of his side’s remaining four games are at home, plus his hosts are at near full strength.
But he is expecting a bruising encounter against a pack that dominated Dragons last time out.
“Exiles shocked the league and showed how good they can be when they beat Jebel Ali,” said the Welshman.
“It’s no easy feat to go there and win in the fashion they did so we know it’s a big test. But at home we haven’t’ lost all season and we’ve got some players back so we’re pretty much at full strength so we think it’s going to be a humdinger of a match.
“We know it will be hugely physical and we just hope we can play our own game. We’re only six points behind with a game in hand and there’s some big games coming up, Quins away and then Dragons at home last game of the season.
“We still believe we’re in the mix, there’s talk now of a three-horse race but we feel differently. We’ve got three of our last four games at home but we’re trying to focus on this game, not the big picture at the moment.”
With games counting down and the title race likely to go to the wire, teams are keenly aware every game counts and bonus points crucial. There’s double significance to Quins’ visit to Dubai Hurricanes, with the game also acting as the teams’ semi-final of the UAE Premiership Cup, with the winner advancing to take on Exiles in the final.
“This weekend is massive for us, double header or not,” said Quins flanker Sean Stevens.
“We are at a point in the league where every point is vital. We are looking to put in an overall performance against Canes to the standard we pride ourselves on at Quins.”
Even though they’re not in the title picture, Canes are desperate for victory that will give them a shot at silverware, while they are also eyeing a top-four berth that would see them qualify for the end of season West Asia Cup.
“At this time of the year and where we are, we are still looking above us to try and get in the top four, this game is crucial, it’s a final,” said coach Mike Wernham.
“Exiles are already there (UAE Premiership Cup final) and are big rivals of ours so that’s a big incentive. If we win we get another shot, having not done ourselves justice against them this season.
“But we’re focused on Quins. We know Quins are back to winning ways with two massive results so will be full of confidence. We know Quins can punish us from anywhere on the field so we’ve got to be on our game.
“We had a good confidence booster against (Dubai) Eagles (won 36-23 two weeks ago), played some good exciting rugby at times although we were peeved we gave up so many points. Defence was a big focus for us in pre-season so we weren’t happy with that.”
Elsewhere, Eagles are in the firing line for a vengeful Dragons outfit who are still hurting from that Exiles defeat.
Andy Buist takes charge of the side in Henry Paul’s absence – he is helping former Wales international and friend Kingsley Jones coach Canada in the Americas Rugby Championship.
And Dragons skipper Ross Samson is determined to get back to winning ways, although he is aware even the best sports teams have their off days.
“The Exiles loss was not ideal but every team will drop points at some stage in a season, even Barcelona lose games now and again,” said the Scottish scrum-half.
“The Eagles have a great set-up and I’ve got nothing but respect for the way they have gone about things this season on and off the pitch. They are in the middle of a challenging first season but we won’t be showing them any love over Valentine’s Day weekend.”
Of being without Paul for the next few weeks, Samson added: “It’s an amazing opportunity for HP to go away and develop his coaching career, we are all really proud of that achievement and he will bring back some new ideas that can only be a positive thing for us.”
Eagles will be buoyed by how they went toe to toe with Canes a few weeks ago and fly-half Sean Carey feels there is no better test of how far they’ve come welcoming the Dragons to their Dubai Sports City lair.
“It will be good to see how far we’ve come from our first ever game (a friendly against Dragons in pre-season) and then again before the Sevens break,” said the Irishman.
“Our last two games have been close and we feel we are improving in areas each week. There’s still a lot of work to be done but there’s no better test than the Dragons.”
15:00 Dubai Hurricanes v Abu Dhabi Harlequins
17:00 Dubai Eagles v Jebel Ali Dragons
17:00 Bahrain v Dubai Exiles