Stuart Quinn believes if Jebel Ali Dragons lift the West Asia Premiership title next weekend it will be a “Roy of the Rovers” type fairytale.
Dragons scaled new heights of UAE rugby when they won back-to-back trebles in 2012/13 and 2013/14 to cement themselves as the dominant force in the Emirates.
But they have fallen back in recent seasons and only began something of a resurgence when former England rugby union and New Zealand league star Henry Paul took charge in the summer of 2016.
Dragons roared back to something approaching their best last season, making the UAE Premiership final where they were beaten by Abu Dhabi Harlequins. But it is in 2017/18 where their growth can really be measured as they have gone toe to toe with Quins, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain in a thrilling four-way battle for silverware.
A 60-23 win over Dubai Hurricanes on Friday sent Dragons to the top of the table with one final round of Premiership fixtures remaining. They are two points above reigning champions Quins although Mike McFarlane’s men will still be favourites to retain their title next Friday as they travel to Dubai to face the league’s bottom side Eagles in their final fixture.
Dragons, meanwhile, also take flight but have an altogether more arduous test ahead of them as they must win in Bahrain. With Quins likely to win and record a maximum victory, McFarlane’s men should earn five points and go three clear – thus nothing but victory will do for Dragons.
“It’s all down to next week now. It’s basically a cup final to be crowned West Asia champions. It’s a great finale to the season,” said Dragons chairman Quinn.
“Roy of the Rovers stuff is needed next weekend but we are that kind of club I suppose.”
Victory to set up next week’s tantalising finale was secured in style at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence, although Quinn felt the margin of defeat was harsh on Hurricanes.
“The boys were very smart in their approach and did what was needed,” he said. “Nico Volovola was unplayable at times and James Love ran the game impeccably. Canes didn’t deserve the scoreline. It was a closer game than that.”
UAE international prop Paul Hart has been with Dragons for eight years so has been part of the good times and bad, and he praised the impact of coaches Jonny MacDonald and Andy Buist in the absence of Paul – who is away helping friend and former Wales international Kingsley Jones coaching Canada at the Americas Rugby Championship, although he will be back for the crucial Bahrain clash.
“Huge praise needs to go to Andy and Jonny for leading Henry Paul’s absence over the last three weeks,” said Hart.
“We have scored 196 points in the last three games so thanks to some brilliant coaching.
“We are very pleased to beat a very competitive Canes team and also get a bonus point to keep our title chase alive. In my eight years here we have always had close battles with the Canes, so to score 60 points shows the class we have individually and form we are on collectively.”
Results – Thursday
Abu Dhabi Harlequins 80 Abu Dhabi Saracens 0
Results – Friday
Dubai Eagles 8 Bahrain 54
Jebel Ali Dragons 60 Dubai Hurricanes 23
Jebel Ali Dragons will technically move into pole position for the West Asia Premiership title on Friday with a bonus point win over rivals Dubai Hurricanes.
A win for Jonny MacDonald and Andy Buist’s men at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence will lift them above Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who climbed back to the top following a convincing 80-0 hammering of city rivals Saracens on Thursday night.
Mike McFarlane’s men are three points ahead but have played a game more, so a maximum win for Dragons will see them go back to the top by two points.
If all goes to plan, then the battle for the title will come down to the final weekend of the season next Friday and all eyes will be on Bahrain as they host Dragons.
Quins end their season in Dubai at rock-bottom Eagles, where they will be expected to get a bonus point win. If that happens and Dragons win this Friday, only a win will do in Bahrain. A win alone will likely see them and Quins finish level at the top of the table, with a bonus point victory likely to see them crowned champions.
Quins lost 37-30 at Dubai Exiles a week ago but a penalty in the final minute earned them a losing bonus point, which added to their try-scoring bonus point in the same game, looks like it will play a vital role in the destiny of the title.
There’s still a lot of rugby left to play though and, for now, Dragons are just concentrating on Canes.
“I hope it’s blue skies and sun for us and rain for anyone else who’s playing and needs wins,” said Dragons skipper Ross Samson ahead of the Canes clash.
“It’s a local derby for us, Canes are a great bunch of boys and we always have good games against them. We just want to keep playing our brand of rugby as we are having loads of fun doing it.”
Canes know they have already secured fifth spot and coach Mike Wernham says they will try and see out the season in as professional a manner as possible.
“Complete the fixture list and continue to play with pride, that’s our aim,” said Wernham.
“We’re hoping for a good performance after narrowly losing at home with such a strong start from us. It’s the last couple of games now and we want to finish the season on a high.
“We will hope to catch Dragons off guard but know they have a lot of quality in their side. We have a couple of weeks off before the Trophy final so will be holding nothing back.”
Exiles have a bye this week and will hope to crash the title party next week when they end their season at Sarries, although the best they can hope for is a likely home West Asia Cup semi-final by finishing second.
Bahrain will go a point behind Quins with a bonus point win over Eagles at Dubai Sports City on Friday, although they too will likely be scrapping for a home semi-final even if they score maximum victories in their final two games – the last one at home to Dragons next week.
“All we can concentrate on is controlling our controllables,” said coach Louie Tonkin, whose side are currently fourth but with games in hand.
“We can’t have any control on any of the other results, it’s out of our hands so all we can focus on is performing as well as we can and get the results we can and seeing where that puts us at the end of the season.
“We respect Eagles. They came to us before Christmas and ran us close so it won’t be an easy game. We’re going to their place so we know it’ll be a tough game. But we have to go there with the mindset of getting maximum points.”
Fixtures – Friday 19:00
Dubai Eagles v Bahrain
Jebel Ali Dragons v Dubai Hurricanes
Result – Thursday
Abu Dhabi Harlequins 80 Abu Dhabi Saracens 0
West Asia Premiership table
Team P W L D PF PA BP Pts
AD Quins 11 8 2 1 464 181 8 42
JA Dragons 10 8 2 0 391 156 7 39
Dubai Exiles 11 7 4 0 398 162 10 38
Bahrain 10 7 2 1 332 149 6 36
Dubai Hurricanes 11 4 7 0 224 332 4 20
AD Saracens 11 1 9 0 70 508 1 5
Dubai Eagles 10 1 9 0 93 488 1 5
Dubai Exiles Under-18s girls blitzed their opponents by a combined score of 131-79 on a successful three-game tour of the UK earlier this month.
After a highly successful 2016/17 season which included a fixture with Surrey school SGS Filton who toured Dubai, Exiles decided to test their skills against the best available teams in Britain.
Girls rugby in Dubai is rapidly growing but the base of players and clubs is still relatively low so the club predominantly play sevens. On tour, however, Andy Williams’ side decided to play 10s.
Working with a local tour company, Exiles got in touch with schools and clubs from across the UK, requesting strong opposition to benchmark themselves, and UAE girls rugby in general, against the best teams available.
Cobham Rugby Club in Surrey has one of the strongest girl’s sections in the South East and Bristol-based SGS Filton is widely regarded as one of the top UK specialist sports schools, with a strong girls’ rugby heritage.
Nelson, near Cardiff, also includes a number of U18 Welsh players and is considered one of the strongest girls’ club teams in the country.
Having lost to Filton on their tour of Dubai last year, Exiles knew they had set themselves a tough schedule, but the girls committed hard to training and focused on skills development and building a superior level of fitness in preparation.
Weather was a major factor on the tour, with temperatures dropping to as low as three degrees at kick-off. The first game was an evening kick-off, made more challenging by the overnight flight.
The girls landed at 07:30 on Friday, February 9, and played 12 hours later. Understandably, they endured a slow start and conceded an early try, but quickly established themselves with a couple of quick scores.
From that moment on they dominated the game, only conceding tries to Cobham’s play-making No12. They eventually ran out 49-24 winners which was fully representative of Exiles’ control of the match.
It gave the girls belief as they headed to Bristol for what was expected to be the toughest game on tour on February 12.
Filton is a dedicated sports academy based in Bristol, which selects girls specifically for rugby and were previously unbeaten in both 15s and Sevens this season, only losing last season in the final of the Rosslyn Park 7s.
Exiles knew that they would be physical and direct and true to form they started very fast. The game was played over 3x 20-minute periods and after 17 minutes Exiles were 19-0 down.
Their first try, however, seemed to change the game and Exiles’ superior fitness then started to show and, coupled with an increasingly physical defense, they started to dominate.
Injuries eventually led to the game reverting to a sevens format and that further played to the UAE side’s strengths. In a barnstorming game, Exiles came back to win 55-38.
On to Cardiff for a Valentine’s Day clash with Nelson, where the weather conditions worsened still. Thankfully, the game was played on a 4G pitch.
A very physical Nelson team were well organised and exploited Exiles’ handling errors in the rain to score first, but once again the visitors settled into a rhythm with some excellent defence and counter-attacking rugby. The conditions made scoring more difficult, but Exiles eased to a 27-17 win.
Head coach Williams said: “This was the first overseas tour by a girl’s rugby team in Dubai and our aim was to test ourselves and see how we compared to the best available teams in the UK.
“To remain unbeaten against sides of this quality was truly amazing and I could not be prouder of the girls.”
Captain Chloe Williams added: “This past week of rugby has been the most challenging and rewarding experience our team has ever faced.
“As captain I could not be prouder of this talented squad of girls and everything that we achieved on our tour of the UK. Hopefully this success will inspire more girls in Dubai to take up rugby and go on more tours in the future.”
Dubai Exiles 49 Cobham 24
Dubai Exiles 55 SGS Filton 38
Dubai Exiles 27 Nelson 17
Dubai Exiles U18 Girls squad:
Mahia Alfereti, Sammie Dronfield, Hannah Ferguson, Celine Sloan, Michaela Warr, Alexandra Kane, Sophie Shamsuddin, Chloe Williams (C), Caitlin Erlank, Elka MacKinnon, Nada Manni, Asia Stevens, Shauna Clune, Lucy Yendall, Sophie Milward