They did it and did it the hard way.
Despite coming into the final week of the campaign on top of the table, Dragons needed a mini miracle to wrestle the title away from defending champions Quins.
Mike McFarlane’s men had very winnable game away at fledgling Dubai Eagles, while Dragons were set the task of going to a team unbeaten at home in 14 months, knowing only a bonus point triumph in Saar was enough.
They did it in style too, roaring into a 36-11 lead, although the home side certainly put the heat on Dragons late on with a stirring comeback as Louie Tonkin’s men ran in three scores to almost ruin the party.
“It was a cracking game,” said long time Dragon Ryno Fourie, who scored a crucial third try for the visitors.
“We were 20 points up at one stage but then they came back, fair play to them, and they had us worried. But we stuck to our guns. We were hungry for it and I’m glad we got the monkey off our backs.
“Since the beginning of the season everyone has tried their best. We came here just trying to settle for what we could do and try our best. We didn’t expect to win it with the streak Bahrain have been on. All the boys put in a performance, it was a whole squad performance.”
Up against it before kick-off, Dragons were also without their talisman, Saki Naisau, but scored through another Fijian, Niko Volavola, Jonathan Hamilton, Fourie, James Love and skipper Ross Sampson.
Quins had done their part, the reigning champions dispatching Eagles 55-3 at Dubai Sports City to earn a bonus point win themselves that took them onto 47 points. Dragons, matching their points tally for the evening, are champions on 48.
Rugby, bloody hell.
The dust may be settling on the Premiership campaign but a new row has been kicked up on the league’s final day after Exiles’ trip to the capital was cancelled at late notice.
But, for the second time this season, Sarries forfeited their fixture with Exiles, with the club citing player injuries leaving them depleted, as well as five of their French legion being called up to military duty.
Even though Exiles will receive a bonus point win, the result will carry as a 20-0 victory – thus hampering the 2015/16 West Asia champions’ hopes of increasing their points tally and affecting their chances of a top-two finish.
That brings with it the guarantee of a home semi-final in the West Asia Cup and the possibility of a home final too. It means Exiles and Sarries will not have played each other in 2017/18 as the capital city side also cancelled their earlier match at The Sevens in January.
It is also the sixth time Exiles have lost a game this season with their first and second teams having both had to regularly deal with forfeits.
And Exiles chairman Mike Wolff is calling for stern action to be taken.
“With the Saracens forfeit this weekend it’s their second against us and incredibly frustrating,” said Wolff.
“It means we won’t have played them once this season in what is supposed to be the showcase league for Gulf rugby.
“I understand they have had issues to contend with – the Exiles were in that same space five years ago – but we voluntarily dropped to the Conference to rebuild, and I think Saracens need to consider doing the same, before they lose any choice in the matter.
“If you want to play in the Premiership then you owe it to yourselves as rugby people, your club and other Premiership clubs to meet your commitments.”
UAE international Jaen Botes had been one of several Exiles players relishing a return to the club where they made their name. But even he has no sympathy for his old side.
The South African number 8 said: “It’s now the second time Saracens are forfeiting against us and it’s the sixth game this season our club has lost a game. It’s an absolute joke and clubs need to be fined for doing it.”
But a former colleague of Botes and Sarries skipper, Jonny Taylor, hit back.
“We have 15 players who have played in the tight five for the first team that are unavailable this weekend,” Taylor, speaking on holiday in Cambodia after departing following the forfeit, said.
“Of our absences, eight are injuries and the French military sent five away on a military exercise while two are not in the country. It’s very unlucky timing.”
His team are in a strange position. Top of the table heading into the final game of the league season, yet knowing they are still underdogs to lift the West Asia Premiership title and erase four years of relative hurt.
But for Jebel Ali Dragons and Ian Overton in-particular, this is why you play the game of rugby, to stand up and be counted in the most testing of circumstances.
Dragons go into the final Friday of the Premiership season one point ahead of defending champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
Yet, while Mike McFarlane takes his men just over 100km down the road to Dubai to take on the fledgling Eagles, Overton and Co take flight to Bahrain, knowing that realistically only a bonus point win against a team that has lost just two of 11 games all term and are undefeated at home in 14 months will deliver them a first major title in four seasons.
If Dragons win but not with a bonus point and Quins earn five points, the title comes down to points difference and if the teams still can’t be separated, the team with the most points scored will be crowned champions.
Quins currently lead on both fronts, posting a points difference of +283 compared to Dragons’ +272, while having scored 464 points to Dragons’ 451.
Whatever the outcome, this has been the most enthralling title battle in recent UAE rugby history, with just five points separating the top four teams.
And even though only Quins or Dragons will realistically lift the Premiership trophy, there is still plenty for third-placed Bahrain and Dubai Exiles, in fourth, to play for – with all four teams also yearning for a top-two finish and a home semi-final in the West Asia Cup.
“Bahrain away is probably the toughest fixture on the calendar anyway, let alone the final game of the season with the title on the line,” said UAE international Overton.
“It’s a massive game and the lads are absolutely buzzing for it, this is why you play this sport, for moments such as this.”
Dragons’ task is made more arduous by the fact they’re missing star Fijian centre Saki Naisau, but that won’t deter a side who welcome back head coach Henry Paul, after his stint helping friend and former Wales international Kingsley Jones coach Canada at the Americas Rugby Championship.
“We’re missing Saki which is a massive blow but we’ve got some old Welsh fella who’s still got some magic left in him,” added Overton, who will be reunited in Bahrain with an old pal of his own, home coach Louie Tonkin.
The pair represented Wales in their youth at basketball and will likely reminisce about the old days, once the formality of the championship is decided.
And Tonkin insists maintaining their “fortress” is of paramount importance to the home team.
“We know the situation. We have to be extremely, extremely lucky to win the league. We need a miracle really,” said the former Cardiff University head coach.
“Quins are likely to get the job done and we still need to beat Dragons. We’ve said all year that one of our biggest goals was to achieve a home semi-final. We haven’t lost at home for 14 months and it’s turned into a fortress for us so we’re absolutely desperate to win.
“It’s a great goal for us and a huge challenge because we know Dragons can win the league with a bonus point win, so it’s a deciding match.
“It’s a must win game. We know if we lose we probably finish fourth and will have to go to Dragons or Quins away in the cup, which is a tough task, so we’re dedicated to winning this game and doing whatever it takes to do so.”
As Dragons have fallen by the wayside in the last four seasons since winning back-to-back trebles in 2012/13 and 2013/14, Quins have risen to prominence.
They won an unprecedented five trophies a year ago although dreams of a repeat were dashed when Exiles won the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens in December.
They have been the team to beat this year, but the fact they go into the final weekend as favourites is no mean feat considering the players they’ve lost to injuries, forced retirement and simply leaving the UAE for pastures new in 2017/18 – with McFarlane paying tribute to the 47 players that have represented the first team throughout the campaign.
“It’s the last Premiership game and what a great job every player has done for the club this season so far,” said the Englishman.
“We have demonstrated incredible depth at the club in a quality league and to be in this position at this stage is testament to all their hard work.
“We have had 47 players play for the first team. Things don’t change as we are carrying several injuries but we look to push hard in the remaining game against an ambitious Eagles side.
“We are disappointed the title isn’t in our complete control but as ever we will go out and concentrate on putting in a performance as a squad of 22.”
In stark contrast it’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Emirates’ newest team, Eagles, formed just weeks before the start of the season. They predictably struggled early on, especially with the top four pulling clear from the rest of the field in terms of quality.
They tasted victory in just their second game of the season against fellow strugglers Abu Dhabi Saracens in September.
And even though defeat in the reverse fixture saw them drop to the bottom of the table, Eagles leapfrogged Sarries following a point deduction for forfeiting a fixture, and will avoid the league’s wooden spoon unless Sarries conjure victory against top two-chasing Exiles.
“It’s been a tough season but it’s finally coming to an end and I’m very proud of how far the lads have come since we started in August,” said Eagles fly-half Sean Carey, also one of the main men behind the club’s emergence.
“We’ve gone from nine players at our first session to two full men’s squads, three women’s teams and over 100 kids in seven to eight months.
“The lads have learned so much about the level of the Premiership and have been playing some really enjoyable rugby at times. It’s all about finishing strong and using the summer window to regroup and come back with a bang next season.
“We are well aware that Quins are going for a number of titles against us and will be targeting that important bonus point; our job will be to make it as hard as possible for them to achieve that.”
There will be something of a reunion at Al Ghazal on Friday as Sarries welcome Exiles, with several former players returning to the capital. One of them is Exiles and UAE Number 8 Jaen Botes, who said: “I’m excited about this one as I’m heading back to old Al Ghazal. It will be nice to run out on that pitch again, I’ve been looking forward to this game all season so can’t wait for it.”
A maximum five-point win for Exiles will take them onto 43 points and then it will be up to fate as to where in the table they finish. But Botes insists they can only worry about doing their job.
“We need to go there and just play to our structures and ensure we play the way we have done since the start of the second half of the season,” said the South African.
“We haven’t played Saracens yet as they forfeited the game last time around so it will be nice to get a run out against them. It is important we stick to our structures and I’m sure we will do a good job.
“I’m sure they are just as up for it as they will want to finish their season on a high. One step at a time for us, hopefully it will work out for us.”
18:00 Bahrain v Jebel Ali Dragons
19:00 Dubai Eagles v Abu Dhabi Harlequins
19:00 Abu Dhabi Saracens v Dubai Exiles