Niall Lear is new to UAE rugby but got his first proper taste of the fierce rivalries it houses this week when Abu Dhabi Harlequins were forced to forfeit their crunch top of the table West Asia Premiership with Dubai Exiles due to an injury crisis.
UAE international prop Craig Nutt is in South Africa celebrating his wedding, which other first-choice front rower Murray Reason is also attending. Quins knew about this when the fixtures were released in August but have subsequently been hit by a raft of other front row injuries in the wake of their last game against Dubai Knights Eagles – ruling four more eligible props out of Friday’s scheduled game with Exiles.
Gulf Rugby refused to allow Quins to switch the game to another day or re-arrange for later in the season – unless Exiles consented. They did not and Lear says the club feels it was backed into a corner and forced to take the option of forfeiting – which not only brings with it a 31-0 loss, but also a two-point deduction.
In previous years a forfeit would mean an automatic 20-0 bonus point victory for the opposition. Lear is bamboozled by new laws from Gulf Rugby Management – the sport’s new governing body in the Emirates – and claims Quins have been punished twice.
“It’s not the spirit of rugby,” said Lear, who had previously led Quins to an unbeaten start to the new campaign, winning three games straight following his appointment in the summer.
“We’ve forfeited. It’s Craig Nutt’s wedding so a few boys are away and they’re not back this weekend, which we always knew about.
“Against Knights Eagles we picked up four more front row injuries and those boys still aren’t fit. Coupled with that, we have two others we’d normally name as replacements but they haven’t played this year yet because they’re injured.
“We approached Gulf Rugby and asked if there are any protocols in place because we’re struggling. I said the only thing I could do was bring third team or vets props up but I don’t think that’s fair because it’s a health and safety thing and a lot of them are well into their 40s.
“They came back and said ‘absolutely not’. The only way it could be postponed or moved to another day was if Exiles agreed, and they did not agree. One of the permutations we gave them was we said we’d double up for the away game later in the season so it would count as double points but they weren’t particularly keen to do that. It’s their prerogative. It is what it is.”
Lear admitted he knew Nutt and Reason – who have both represented Apollo Perelini’s UAE – would be away during this period when the fixtures were released. But he said he had no need to raise the issue with Gulf Rugby at the time because he felt Quins could cope.
“I didn’t make a song and dance about this in August so it comes down to whether Exiles want to agree,” added the Scotsman.
“Part of the reason we didn’t (make a fuss) was because it was just two props being away. Then we’ve had a raft of injuries which you can’t account for.
“I initiated contact with Exiles three weeks ago and got very little back and so Steve (McCaffrey, competitions manager at Gulf Rugby) had to intervene.
“From our point of view it’s not bitching and moaning, it’s a shame there’s no common sense utilised and we’ve had to go down this route, because we tried to provide alternatives.
“We went to extremes to make sure the game went ahead. We offered them (Exiles) suitable dates (to replay) but it’s their prerogative.
“We’ve agreed to change three or four games already this season throughout the club – from kick-off times and dates – because we want everyone playing rugby.
“Winning at all costs isn’t for us. We’ve made a call we know is the right one, but I know this whole process could have been handled better.”
Exiles fired back at the criticism aimed their way though, saying that had they accepted Quins’ proposal, it would have been to their detriment.
Interim Exiles chairman Rob Riding said the club would have been left “compromised” had they agreed to a switch of the fixture.
Riding explained: “Harlequins approached Exiles and Gulf Rugby Management with a request to move the fixture. Their explanation was that they didn’t have a front row.
“We looked at the proposed dates, and they would have compromised us. One in December, after the (Dubai) Sevens, when half our first team would not be available, because they are teachers.
“The other on a date which would have meant a double header for us. We did not feel it fair to compromise our season.
“It was also outside the agreed three-week window of notification. I did find it interesting that their second team played a fixture that weekend with a front row.
“Also I believe that weddings are normally planned further in advance, this was the reason for their request.”
Teams who regularly earned forfeit victories in previous seasons had bemoaned that a 20-0 win did not reflect substantial enough compensation for what was, at one point, a regular spate of cancellations.
But now, domestic rugby chiefs appear to have gone overboard with sanctions.
“Rather than just a loss it’s a seven-point turn. It’s like we’re being punished twice,” added Lear, a schoolteacher.
“There’s no hard feelings against Gulf Rugby or Exiles, I would have just hoped this situation could have been managed better.
“We had three options: play the game, despite the health and safety issues, technically I think it would make me liable; uncontested scrums which would result in a 31-0 loss anyway; or take the 31-0 loss and be docked two points. We have had to go for option three.”
The cancellation of the game will now see Exiles go to 18 points at the top of the table, allowing Bahrain the chance to leapfrog Quins into second spot, providing they win at home to visiting Dubai Hurricanes. Quins were on 13 but drop to 11 points – level with Bahrain – following the two-point deduction.
In the other Friday fixture, the league’s two winless teams meet in Jebel Ali as Dragons host Dubai Knights Eagles.
West Asia Premiership Fixtures:
Bahrain v Dubai Hurricanes
Abu Dhabi Harlequins v Dubai Exiles (forfeited by Harlequins)
Jebel Ali Dragons v Dubai Knights Eagles
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