Perelini and Co will surely hope to make up for lost time when they take on Guam in Thailand on May 15, as the UAE look to plot a path back into the ARC’s Division I after they withdrew from the competition a year ago.
The UAE Rugby Federation – for still unconfirmed reasons – withdrew the 15s team from the 2018 ARC, leaving the nation to play a glorified friendly against lowly Gibraltar.
During their 2017 Division I campaign in Malaysia, the UAE finished bottom of the table in Ipoh after defeats to the host nation, as well as the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
The UAE were spared relegation though and players and coaches had been looking forward to putting in an improved showing last year, only to be told of the news the UAE RF would not be sending a team to the tournament – which was instead played between two teams, the Philippines and Singapore, as a two-legged tie.
Those two sides will now compete in Division I, alongside Sri Lanka and Chinese Taipei, who were crowned Division II champions. The UAE will be heavily fancied to beat minnows Guam at the Bang Bon Sport Center in Bangkok, with the winners set to take on either Thailand or Kazakhstan in the final on May 18.
Instead of competing in the ARC, the UAE instead played Gibraltar in an unofficial Test match last April, winning 28-15.
Perelini has announced a 27-man training squad for the tournament which is likely to be whittled down ahead of the nation’s departure for Thailand on May 12. Training sessions will take place over the coming weeks.
Emosi Ratuvecanaua, Luke Stevenson, Kini Natuna (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Andrew Powell, Sakiusa Naisau (both Dubai Hurricanes), Niko Volavola, Matthew Richards (both Jebel Ali Dragons); Thinus Steyn, Edward Armitage (both Dubai Exiles), Sean Carey (Dubai Eagles); Majid Al Balooshi, Mohamed Suleiman (both Dubai Shaheen)
Chris Jones-Griffiths, Craig Nutt, Murray Reason, Esekaia Dranibota, Sean Stevens (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Lucas Waddington, Gio Fourie, Matt Mills, Jaen Botes, Stephen Ferguson (all Dubai Exiles); Daniel Perry (Jebel Ali Dragons); Isaac Porter, Mohamed Hassan (both Dubai Eagles); Hamish Anderson (Dubai Hurricanes); Ahmed Moosa (Dubai Shaheen)
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