They won an unprecedented quintuple two seasons ago, but things have rarely been easy for Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the intervening years.
And they certainly did things the hard way to salvage their season by beating old foes Jebel Ali Dragons to recapture the UAE Premiership title on Friday.
Quins edged a closely-fought contest 37-27 at The Sevens, a late converted try and penalty eventually giving them breathing space as the teams entered the final 10 minutes deadlocked at 27-27.
Both teams have endured difficulties this season – not least the fact that growing force Bahrain, West Asia Premiership champions, have been a cut above everyone.
But Quins, who saw influential coach Mike McFarlane depart at the start of the year after overseeing a period of Gulf rugby dominance, showed tremendous resilience and character to see off their old rivals.
Already with influential quartet of skipper Luke Stevenson and vice captain Craig Nutt – who jointly took dual player-coach roles after McFarlane’s departure – as well as centre Brian Geraghty and UAE prop Murray Reason unavailable for the game, Quins lost forwards Sean Stevens and Semisi Seruitoana to injury in the opening 20 minutes.
Bizarrely, starting centre Kobus Cronje then had to depart at half-time due to a pre-booked holiday with his partner, meaning he would have missed his flight had he stayed for the full 80 minutes. For those reasons alone, victory was well deserved.
“It is absolute credit to the determination of all involved that the team held firm against a very strong Dragons side to grind out a hard-fought win,” said Rory Green, long-term assistant coach to McFarlane.
“We’re delighted to get the win. We knew we would be facing a very strong Dragons side that was buoyant from a good win over Dubai Exiles.
“We were missing some key players in Luke, Craig, Brian and Murray due to work and other commitments that could not be changed, and Kobus had to leave at half-time to ensure he could make his flight from Abu Dhabi that evening.
“So our squad depth was going to be tested. In addition to the four key players unavailable we also suffered two injuries in the first 20 minutes of the game, which meant we had to use our strong bench earlier than we would have liked.
“It meant we started the second half with seven key first team players not on the pitch.”
Green also heaped praise on stand-in captain Chris Jones-Griffiths, the Welshman had finally brought the curtain down on a near decade-long senior career with Quins two seasons ago, insisting he was only going to play vets rugby.
He came out of semi-retirement last season to answer a Quins injury crisis though and again put his hand up for the final.
“That (team ethos) is of course down to hard work but also, more importantly, down to the bond and friendships that have been formed in what is an incredibly close nit group of players, coaches and management,” added Greene.
“They literally put bodies on the line, epitomised no more than our match-day skipper Chris Jones-Griffiths who is technically a ‘vet’ but probably had the most carries and yards gained of anyone on the pitch, and his recall in to the UAE squad is richly deserved.
“We also had a graduate of our junior section, 18-year-old Cristian Smalberger (who made his debut in the semi-final win over Hurricanes), not only in the squad but adding real value when he came on which is fantastic to see.”
After leading Quins to that fabulous five-trophy haul in 2016/17, McFarlane – depleted by player departures as well as talismanic former captain Ben Bolger’s forced retirement on the eve of the 2017/18 campaign – was powerless stop the club relinquishing their grip on their major honours last year.
Exiles beat them in the UAE Premiership final and also took the Dubai Sevens crown from them, while Dragons usurped them as kings of west Asia.
“Mike McFarlane has laid a fantastic foundation at the club and since his departure Ali Thompson and Mark Challis have stepped up to see the lads through the remainder of the season,” said Greene.
“Having been the most consistent team in the UAE, having ‘lost’ just one game in the UAE Premiership regular season (a forfeit due to lack of front row availability in February) we were determined to make sure we walked away with a major trophy and to make amends for the defeat in the UAE Premiership final last season.
“A total of 43 lads have played for the first team this season and this win is for all of them, not just the match-day squad.
“Dragons should be congratulated on the part they played in what was a great advert for UAE rugby and on another day they could easily have come out on top, but we enjoyed this one.”
In the earlier final from Friday, Dubai Tigers retained their UAE Conference crown after they beat Al Ain Amblers 37-21.
An arduous and testing campaign of expatriate rugby reaches its conclusion this weekend with the finals of the UAE Premiership and UAE Conference on Friday.
Jebel Ali Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins meet at The Sevens at 16:00 looking to be crowned Premiership champions and end tumultuous seasons on a high. Dragons return to the scene of their semi-final win last weekend, they earned a dramatic 28-24 win over defending Premiership champions Dubai Exiles. They will meet Quins who eased to a 43-27 triumph at Zayed Sports City over Dubai Hurricanes – who had finished fourth in the standings.
The game is also a rematch of the 2016/17 final – a thrilling game was decided by a late Emosi Ratuvanacua in a 30-20 triumph. It was a win that sealed a sensational quintuple for Quins.
It’s been a largely galling campaign for both sides, who have been blown away by brilliant Bahrain in the major competition – the West Asia Premiership. Dragons has been brilliant on their way to a maiden trophy in four years last season under Henry Paul.
But after former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips was named as Henry’s successor in the summer, initial fanfare died down as Dragons struggled to compete at their 2017/18 level, with Phillips vacating the role in January.
For Quins, they remained fairly stoic in the dominance of Bahrain, finishing second to Louie Tonkin’s side in the standings. That has been impressive considering they also lost their coach – the influential Mike McFarlane – around the same time. They also had to contend with reaching the Gulf Men’s League final at the Dubai Sevens, only to lose to Canes.
In the Conference final, meanwhile, reigning champions Dubai Tigers will be favourites to retain their crown as they take on 2016/17 finalists Al Ain Amblers – the duo finished first and second in the league standings.
Tigers mauled Dragons 2nds in their semi-final last week, winning 57-17, while Amblers negotiated their way past Hurricanes 2nds via a 31-22 triumph.
UAE Conference final
14:00 Dubai Tigers v Al Ain Amblers
UAE Premiership final
16:00 Abu Dhabi Harlequins v Jebel Ali Dragons
In an exciting first for the Gulf region, the Beach Rugby Dubai tournament was officially announced this week.
Sanctioned by the UAE Rugby Federation and supported by Beyond the Beach, Beach Rugby Dubai offers a thrilling one-day tournament of corporate, social and club rugby on the shores of the pristine Jumeirah coastline.
Open to all levels of men’s and women’s players, locally and internationally, the tournament will be played at the Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort located within the vibrant heart of JBR Walk on Friday, April 26. Matches will start at 08:00 and continue through until 20:00.
“Discussions have been under way for a number of years on how we can bring the excitement of beach rugby to UAE’s rugby-loving community and we now believe we have the right starting point which will provide a fantastic day of quality rugby for clubs, corporates and social teams, as well as for the enjoyment of rugby fans,” said Qais Al Dhalai, UAE Rugby Federation’s secretary general.
“We are exceptionally fortunate to have some of the most stunning, clean stretches of beachfront in the UAE and we are very pleased to see this tournament scheduled to be played on the Sheraton Beach Resort’s shoreline.”
Speaking on the development of the tournament Al Dhalai added: “We have entered into a long-term partnership with our preferred sport marketing agency; Onside Sports, who have been tasked with developing the concept and the event.
“Together with them we look forward to, and are committed to growing this tournament into a must-do fixture on the UAE sporting calendar for the enjoyment of local and international beach rugby fanatics and fans.”
Jeff O’Brien, managing partner at Onside Sports, said: “Dubai is rich with numerous quality sports events that welcome the participation of all levels of athlete, and, with the many formats rugby has to offer we are very excited to bring both contact and touch to the sands of Dubai under Beach Rugby Dubai.
“We are encouraged by the interest we are receiving (for the tournament) and are exceptionally pleased to welcome Beyond the Beach as our official sponsor and thank them for their support to this engaging, and exciting format of a rugby experience.”
A total of five pitches will be used throughout the day, where three beach pitches will be marked out for beach rugby touch and two for beach rugby contact. Teams in beach rugby touch will consist of seven players per team (three reserves), and the beach rugby contact will consist of eight players per team (three reserves).
Each half will be played over five minutes. Officiating Beach Rugby Dubai will be under the jurisdiction of the UAERF with technical support from Middle East Touch.
More information about Beach Rugby Dubai, including packages, can be found at www.beachrugbydubai.ae.