After being branded chokers for losing back-to-back finals, Al Ain Amblers’ head coach Peter Aki says his team are now concentrating on challenging in next season’s Sport360 UAE Premiership.
Amblers beat Jebel Ali Dragons 35-15 in Friday’s UAE Conference Cup showdown, finally shrugging off the unwanted tag after losing in 2013 to Abu Dhabi Harlequins and in 2014 to Dubai Hurricanes.
The men from the Garden City have been all-conquering this season, winning 10 out of 10 in the pre-Christmas UAE Conference competition.
They scored 570 points in the process and conceded just 63 – an average of a 57-6 win every game.
Early in the new year the league’s 12 teams were split up into the Top 6 and Bottom 6 divisions, playing another five games, with the best two teams in the former going on to play in the Conference Cup and the top two from the latter group going head-to-head for the Conference Plate.
Amblers won all five Top 6 games and brushed the Jebel Ali Dragons aside in the final to make it third time lucky.
Although their promotion to the Premiership is yet to be ratified by the UAE Rugby Federation and there is also no news on whether a team will drop down into the Conference or if it will become a seven-team competition, Aki is looking ahead to mixing it with the UAE elite.
“We’re looking forward to next season in the Premiership, and seeing how we get on,” he said. “Now we’ve won the final we deserve it, so we’ll look forward to the challenge.
“It’s been three years in the making. We’ve been together as a team for three years and it might take another three years to make any headway in the Premiership, but we’ll give it a good go and, like I said, look forward to it.”
After stuttering at the final hurdle in the previous two years, any fears of a repeat were dismissed in Friday’s showpiece, which was barely a contest, Amblers sauntering into a 27-3 lead early in the second half and always retaining control on the game. The club is making great strides for rugby in the UAE, with 40 per cent of its 2,000-plus members of Emirati origin, yet they have their critics.
Their first team has dominated the Conference scene for the last three years, rival clubs claiming they’re too strong for the division.
On top of that, they were rounded on for entering a second team into this year’s Conference, club chairman Andre Fourie claiming other clubs were jealous.
“The club is growing and moving in the right direction and, for some reason, people don’t like that,” he had said previously.
However, as Aki said before Friday’s final: “People think we should go up but we haven’t won anything. We haven’t won the right to go up to the Premiership so the pressure’s on us.”
If, as expected, they get the green light and are promoted to the Premiership, there can be no argument that they’ve certainly earned it now.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins endured yet another slow start but wiped out a half-time deficit to heap more misery on fallen giants Jebel Ali Dragons.
Quins encountered a spirited home side in the first 40 minutes, Dragons leading 7-5 at half-time.
— Jebel Ali Dragons (@JebelAliDragons) February 27, 2015
The visitors got their act together in the second period, running in four unanswered scores to leave their opponents starring at their sixth Gulf Top Six loss.
These two have been the perennial heavyweights of Gulf rugby, clashing in countless finals for silverware over the last few years.
Last night’s game, however, had a strange feel to it.
Quins could still, mathematically at least, have finished inside the top two of the competition and reached the West Asia Cup final.
Doha’s narrow win over Bahrain ended those hopes, though.
Full time. @doharugby scrape it 27-22
— Bahrain RFC (@bahrainrfc) February 27, 2015
Quins opened the scoring after 12 minutes through No8 Marcos Flores’ try.
Graeme Braybrooke’s conversion of Nick Taylor’s try was the difference until Jeremy Manning’s penalty nudged Quins in front after the break.
Clendon Pene led by example, crashing over from a maul six minutes after entering the field.
Argentine fly-half Ben Santamarina scampered over for another try five minutes later.
The Dragons were buried after an hour when William Umu’s try gave Quins a bonus point.
— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) February 27, 2015
Flores was sin-binned for an off the ball incident but being depleted didn’t stop Quins from scoring again, Umu crashing over for his second try.
Quins’ assistant coach Scott Clark said: “It was a comfortable win, but again we didn’t start playing our style of rugby until the second half, so there’s still things to work on in our last two games.”
Quins have been something of comeback kings this year, fighting from two opening UAE Premiership defeats to claim the trophy with four wins on the spin.
They also lost their opening two GT6 games, but Clark said they need to break that habit.
“Slow starts have killed us. You can’t play catch-up rugby week after week,” he said.
Dragons’ centre Taif Al Delamie said: “It really hasn’t been our season this year.
“We wanted two things from the lads today, to play with a bit of character and enjoy our rugby, and we achieved those two things.
“But, we’re still on the wrong side of the scoreline so we’re still not happy.”
Saracens win eighth GT6 game on the trot
Abu Dhabi Saracens are two games away from perfection after they beat Dubai Hurricanes 40-12 to make it eight wins from eight in the Gulf Top 6.
Sarries ran in six tries in all but had to grind out a result against a spirited Canes.
South Africans Pieter Morton and Rhuwan Pienaar both scored a brace of tries, while there was one for Steve Hamilton after he had earlier been sin-binned, and yet anot-her score for flanker Jonny Taylor.
Elliott Reeder kicked five penalties as Sarries actually won for the 11th straight game, counting the last three games they won in the UAE Premiership season.
“It was a good win, a big result in the end, but Canes, as expected, didn’t give up, they played 80 minutes,” said Sarries’ player/coach Ali Thompson.
— Gameday (@ADSaracens) February 27, 2015
“It was only 14-0 at half-time and they came back at us. We scored six tries, five for our backs, but we had to grind it out.
“There’s a good atmosphere in the team but we keep striving for perfection. We still have lulls in games.”
It doesn’t get any easier for Sarries, who face their sternest test yet away at Doha next weekend.
Doha won their seventh game of the GT6 but had to work mightily hard in Saar to scrape a 27-22 win against Bahrain.
Toby Borrow, Mark Burnell and Adam Wallace scored tries for the hosts, with Aaron McLelland’s brace, Elliot Johnston and Wade Lotter replying for the visitors.
Amblers finally break the jinx to clinch Cup on third try
So often the bridesmaid, Al Ain Amblers finally made it down the aisle themselves as they won the UAE Conference Cup after losing in the two previous finals.
Peter Aki’s men strolled to a 35-15 win over the Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds in on Friday’s showpiece to banish the painful memories of the past two seasons.
The two teams had faced each other in their final match of the UAE Conference Top 6 season the previous week, the game acting as a showdown to decide who would finish first and take home-field advantage for Friday’s game.
That match had finished 30-20 in Amblers’ favour, with the men from the Garden City clinching the win with a late try.
This game was barely a contest, with Al Ain leading 27-3 at one stage early in the second half, and Mike Lewis’ men scoring a try very late to put a little more gloss on their defeat.
“We were in control for most of the game and we really put them away in the first 20 minutes, which is what I had said to the lads,” said Aki.
— The Sporting Wag (@SportingWag) February 27, 2015
“The first 20 minutes of the game and the first five minutes of the second half were crucial.
“The pressure was really on us beforehand, as we’ve lost the last two finals.
“But we didn’t talk about it ourselves, we just did the same as we have for the last 10 weeks and close games out.
“I’m so proud of the boys, as we’ve gone unbeaten all the way through the season.”
The Amblers coach added: “We’ve been bridesmaids a few times but now we’re taking the main honours.”
Meanwhile, in the other Conference final yesterday, Abu Dhabi Harlequins beat Dubai Sharks 31-20 at Zayed Sport City to claim the Conference Plate.
The game was between the sides who finished first and second in the Bottom 6 of the Conference, with Sharks losing for the second year in a row in the final.
Sharks’ forwards’ coach Dan Gawn said: “Quins were the better team on the day and were fully deserving winners.”
Ross Mills has stoked the fire ahead of Abu Dhabi Saracens’ visit to 7he Sevens by claiming Ali Thompson’s unbeaten team are not the best side in the Gulf Top Six.
The red and blacks have won seven straight games, already securing a top two finish and with it a place in the West Asia Cup final.
– #Quiz360: WIN dinner for 2 at Jumeira Rotana
Dubai Hurricanes coach Mills has praised the Al Ghazal club for the progress made in the four years since they were established, but claims their all-conquering pack deserves most of the credit for their impressive rise this season.
“Sarries are the leaders but they’re not the best team,” Mills stated boldly.
“I think if you took two or three players out of that pack they’re ordinary.
“Sarries play to their strengths but the two best teams are Quins and Doha and, if you’re a rugby purist, you want it to be Quins v Doha final.”
Mills, meanwhile, admitted everyone at Canes is suffering following their 69-7 beating in Qatar last week.
“We tried to play rugby but after they secured a bonus point win after 15 minutes it was damage limitation.
“It was a humbling experience. I’ve never lost by a score as big as that as a coach or player, and I never want to again.
“Lots of people are hurting and everyone at the club is smarting, but training has been good this week and the lads are up for this game.”
Four players not able to travel last week could be back, including Mike Rust, Mike Lancaster, Matt Barr and Greg Thompson.
Matt Hutchins is away for personal reasons so Dougie Steele will return to full-back.
AL AIN AMBLERS v JEBEL ALI DRAGONS
Al Ain Amblers 1sts and Jebel Ali Dragons 2nds head into the UAE Conference Cup final this weekend, both teams keenly aware the Garden City club have choked in back-to-back finals.
Amblers have been in dominant form this season, winning all 10 games in the UAE Conference, scoring 570 points and conceding just 63 in the process.
In January, the 12-team Conference was split into the Top 6 and Bottom 6, with Al Ain claiming another five wins to win the Top 6 and claim a place in the Cup final.
Dragons clinched second spot, losing their last match against Amblers 30-20, the victors claiming home field advantage for the final.
Dragons’ coach Mike Lewis knows his side are going into the final as underdogs, but claims all the pressure will be on Al Ain, who lost the 2013 final to Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds and last year’s showpiece to Dubai Hurricanes 2nds.
“We’re looking forward to the game, there’s a buzz around the club and hopefully we can bring back some silverware,” said the Welshman.
“We’ll go there as underdogs and no pressure on us, they’re the ones under pressure after two defeats in the finals.”
Amblers have attracted criticism for their dominance of the Conference in recent seasons, many rivals claiming they should be playing in the Premiership, but Aki says his players haven’t earned that right.
“People thinking we should go up is a bit of a problem, but we haven’t won anything yet, we haven’t won the right to go up,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the Plate final, to determine the champions of the Bottom 6, Dubai Sharks travel to Zayed Sport City on Friday to take on Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds.
GULF TOP SIX ROUND-UP
Jeremy Manning admits Abu Dhabi Harlequins need a miracle to achieve their treble dream but says his team is determined to finish the season on a high
Quins are 14 points behind second placed Doha in the Gulf Top Six and the Qatar side need just two points from their remaining three games to guarantee a West Asia Cup final place alongside Saracens.
Despite that, Manning is focused on Quins’ game with Jebel Ali Dragons on Friday. “We need a miracle to make the top two but we’re not really thinking of it like that,” said the New Zealander.
“We’ve been out of the blocks very slow the last two weeks and we need a dominant first half performance.
“We’ve won the second halves in both of our previous games but lost them both, so we need to right those wrongs and I’ve been drilling that into the boys this week,” Manning added.
Doha can seal a top two finish and a place in the cup final with a win at Bahrain, who won for the first time last week at Dragons.
“The mood in the camp has certainly improved this week and hopefully will give us a big boost for the remainder of the season,” said Bahrain press officer Tom Hanratty.
Doha head coach Aaron Palmer was happy with his side’s 69-7 demolition of Dubai Hurricanes.
“We were happy with last week’s win but we are always wary of Bahrain at home and know they’ll be on a high after last week’s result too.”