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.
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