Mike Wernham has described Abu Dhabi Harlequins as “our Everest”, with Dubai Hurricanes going in search of a long-overdue victory against the capital city side.
Much-improved Canes head to Abu Dhabi to take on Quins on Friday with a place in the UAE Premiership final against either Dubai Exiles or Jebel Ali Dragons the prize. But to all intents and purposes, head coach Wernham admits this is their final.
It’s been a fixture filled with Canes pain over the years, ever since Ross Mills’ men finished top of the regular season standings in the 2014/15 campaign yet went on to suffer a gargantuan 39-19 defeat in the Premiership final to a Jeremy Manning-led Quins.
In the last three seasons alone, Canes’ record against Quins reads: seven games, seven defeats – though they do allow themselves a smirk at their 24-14 triumph at the Dubai Sevens last December, the shock win coming in the final as Canes lifted the Gulf Men’s League title.
In the main league competition though it’s been agony after heartbreaking agony. Quins triumphing by a combined margin of 249-146 in the now amalgamated West Asia/UAE Premiership meetings during the last three campaigns.
There have been many close calls though, the 36-35 loss at The Sevens in December in-particular; a thrilling encounter that was nevertheless laced with more Canes pain.
Despite their recent experiences, Canes and Wernham head to Zayed Sports City full of confidence.
“It’s a semi but we’re treating it as a final,” said Wernham. “We have our backs against the wall and are underdogs, but we’re used to that. We’re glad we’re in a semi and we have nothing to hold back. This is our Everest.
“We had a goal at the end of the year to finish in the top four at the start of the season and we’ve met that. But obviously our goal has changed now following victories over Dragons and Exiles.
“We’ve been to Quins twice – the first time we were in it then blew it (lost 31-12 last October), then in the second game we blew that too after being 14 points up (the 36-35 defeat in February).
“So we’re under no illusion about how tough it is to go there and get a result. It’s a fortress for them but we go there with huge confidence. We want to play some rugby.”
For Quins, it’s been a strange season. Mike McFarlane – in charge since Manning stood down after that triumphant 2014/15 season – returned to England at the beginning of 2019, leaving players Luke Stevenson and Craig Nutt in charge.
They finished second behind dominant Bahrain in the West Asia Premiership table, only to then lose to Exiles in the ensuing play-off semi-final. The Dubai side then went to Saar and were narrowly beaten 23-21 in the final two weeks ago.
And Stevenson wants to avoid a repeat of last term when Quins’ efforts warranted much but they were left with little – beaten by Exiles in the UAE Premiership final and losing out on the West Asia Premiership to Dragons on the final day.
“It’s been a strange season for us, we’ve been the most consistent side behind Bahrain but could walk away with nothing to show for it, so we want to make sure we go well this weekend and hopefully push on into next season,” said UAE fly-half Stevenson.
“The way the season is structured has led to a bit of an anti-climax, and I know most boys, in all clubs, not just Quins, are a bit baffled at the two separate play-off systems, and just want to get to the end of the season.
“If we can do that in a final then great, but hopefully there’s a shake-up next season as having play-offs in a five-team league just defeats all purpose of the league itself.
“Hurricanes are a decent side and we always have tough games against them, so we’ll have to put in a strong performance and try and end the season well.”
In the other semi-final, being played in Dubai, Exiles will also look to finish the season strong against Dragons and fight to retain the trophy they lifted against Quins a year ago.
“We are excited ahead of the Dragons game, regardless of it being a semi-final it’s always a good battle between the two of us,” said scrum-half Ed Armitage, who has been filling in at full-back this term.
“After the disappointment of the West Asia final, we are desperate to give ourselves an opportunity at a title.
“I think we are peaking at the right time. Back in January I think most teams had written us off, but with our squad getting back to full strength we are playing decent rugby which teams cannot handle at times.”
Chairman Mike Wolff added: “We are really excited and up for this one. Dragons are a great club and they will undoubtedly put out a strong team.
“We were denied the West Asia title against Bahrain by a matter of inches the other week; it would be great for our guys to make another final to have a shot at the chance of the UAE Premiership title. Everything to play for.”
The UAE Conference semis are also being played this weekend, with reigning champions Dubai Tigers looking to get back to the showpiece a year on from their scintillating 25-20 extra-time triumph over Sharjah Wanderers. Tigers take on Dragons 2nds at Dubai College.
In the other semi being played at The Sevens, Hurricanes 2nds entertain 2016/17 finalists Al Ain Amblers.
UAE Premiership semi-finals
17:00 Abu Dhabi Harlequins v Dubai Hurricanes
17:00 Dubai Exiles v Jebel Ali Dragons
UAE Conference semi-finals
15:00 Dubai Hurricanes 2nds v Al Ain Amblers
16:00 Dubai Tigers v Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds
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