Saracens remain on course for a domestic and European double after beating Leicester to reach a third successive Premiership final.
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The UAE go into today’s crunch Asia Rugby Championship encounter with Thailand in confident fashion following Wednesday’s rout of Uzbekistan – but the players know their sternest test lies ahead of them.
Apollo Perelini’s men battered the tournament hosts 65-13 three days ago to set up a clash with the Thais who overcame Guam 25-16.
Promotion to Division I of the ARC is the carrot dangling in front of both teams at Tashkent’s Dustlik Stadium today but Perelini’s players know they will be facing a different Thailand side to the one they thrashed 53-22 in Division II in Kuala Lumpur 12 months ago.
“There’s still a lot of work left to do so we will keep our heads down and just prepare for the next game against Thailand,” said UAE and Abu Dhabi Saracens Number 8 Jaen Botes, who touched down for two tries in Wednesday’s demolition.
“It was a good result, we played well and there are a lot of positives.”
Dubai Exiles winger Charlie Sargent led the way for the UAE with a hat-trick of tries in triumph and also added a conversion.
As well as Botes, Jebel Ali Dragons duo Imad Reyal and Ryno Fourie also crossed for braces, while Abu Dhabi Harlequins lock Phil Brady also touched down.
Skipper Niall Statham is a doubt for today’s game after he was substituted before half time on Wednesday suffering an ankle injury, although the Scotsman is not letting that dampen his mood.
“We were really happy with the win, we came flying out the traps and never gave them a chance,” said the Dragons flanker of a win that was the largest ever recorded by the UAE.
It also marked the first time in their history that the UAE had won back-to-back games following their 16-12 win against Chinese Taipei in their final Division II match in Malaysia last year.
“Thailand had a much tougher test against Guam and we’ve crossed paths a few times, but we’ll go in very confident after scoring 55 points against them last time,” added Statham.
“I had to go off with a bad ankle about 30 minutes in so I’m a real doubt for the final but everyone else in great form.”
Final Score 65 - 13 to UAE!— UAE Rugby Federation (@uaerugby) 18 May 2016
The boys will now face Thailand on Saturday!
Although the UAE are expecting a tougher test against Thailand today, South African three-quarter Fourie claims his side are also much improved from 12 months ago.
“Last year we didn’t have so many good ball players and decision makers in the back line and I think this year that made the difference,” said Fourie.
“The forwards were dominant up front too with guys like Daniel Minks carrying good ball and making great decisions in terms of knowing when to carry and when to pass.
“This is definitely a result that we were confident in and now we need to finish it off on Saturday.”
Connacht Rugby’s rise from whipping boys of the Pro 12 to the cusp of a first domestic title has been nothing short of remarkable.
Matt Healy, Bundee Aki and Denis Buckley have stolen many headlines this season, while manager Pat Lam has been hailed as a messiah and former coaches Eric Elwood and Michael Bradley also lauded for their superb efforts in past campaigns.
But away from the front page spreads and hours of analysis, this meteoric rise has renewed excitement in Irish rugby in a season in which Munster, Ulster and Leinster all failed to shine on the European stage.
To put Connacht’s rise into context, their average finishing position in the Pro 12 from 2003-2015 was 9th. They averaged just seven league wins per season.
This season, they’ve won 15 of 22 games.
Under the stewardship of Bradley (2003-2010) and Elwood (2010-2013) they made small steps towards improvement, but were never deemed a threatening side.
After Eldwood’s departure in 2013, however, Auckland native Pat Lam stepped in to transform the team into a dominant attacking and defensive force, which now sits on the brink of domestic silverware.
The Kiwi has created a ‘culture’ within the club, focusing on the game, the leadership and the general vision for development – all of which have made Connacht one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the competition.
On the field, Lam has prepared his squad to adapt to any type of game in any type of conditions – exemplified by hard-fought wins over Munster, Leinster, Ospreys and Glasgow this season.
The impression emanating from the Sportsgrounds in Galway is that the players not only want to win for the team, but also for Lam, a coach for whom they hold significant respect and admiration.
Against Leinster at home in March, they held out for a famous 7-6 win, with the away side camped on their line for the final minutes as a heartbreaking winning try looked almost inevitable.
The Connacht of old would have given up, but this team moulded by Lam refused to buckle and closed out for a historic victory.
At the final whistle, the deafening noise around the Sportsgrounds showed what it meant to the thousands who have followed this team through the dark days, of which there have been many.
In 2003, Connacht was threatened with extinction as the Irish Rugby Football Union were facing a deficit of nearly €4 million (Dhs 16 million) and thus considered making Ireland a three-team professional operation.
Were it not for the 1,000-strong support that marched to the IRFU head offices on Lansdowne Road, the club may not have survived.
Funding from the union has subsequently increased over the years, and notable signings such as former Scotland international Dan Parks and All Blacks legend Mils Muliana, illustrate the IRFU’s ambition for the growth of the province.
With both players moving on recently, Super 15 stars Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney were recruited from the Chiefs and Bulls respectively and have produced sterling contributions since.
Aki, in particular, is a totemic presence. He plays with a passion and determination that is frightening, adding steel to a strong back line that boasts Irish superstar Robbie Henshaw and the league’s top try scorer Healy.
The strength of homegrown talent coming through Connacht’s underage ranks and academy systems has also been a major boon, with a number of players given an opportunity by Lam in the league this year.
In addition, four academy graduates in Ultan Dillane, Finlay Bealham, Kieran Marmion and Henshaw have gone on to win Ireland caps, and more should follow as the wealth of talent coming through the Galway system improves.
It’s admirable to see an underdog win, but Connacht’s progress over the past two years underlines how a committed and determined group – coupled with a voracious work ethic – can succeed.
A top-six finish was Lam’s priority this term, but when his side line up in their Pro 12 semi-final against Glasgow this Saturday, they will have only glory for Galway on their mind.