Love will be in the air on Friday as the curtain comes down on the UAE rugby season, with famed foes Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins battling each other for the final major piece of silverware of the 2017/18 campaign.
Talk of romance seems strange when discussing these two sides. They have been the best of enemies and the standout two sides in UAE rugby over the last four years.
But both teams will have key players involved in Friday’s UAE Premiership final who celebrated their engagements this week. Exiles lock Stephen Ferguson proposed to partner Deena on holiday in Hong Kong, while Quins scrum-half Andrew Semple got engaged to his fiancee last week.
More intriguing is that the pair are old schoolfriends from back home in Derry, Northern Ireland.
Victory on Friday will provide one of them with a double celebration. But when it comes to the game, Ferguson insists there will be no love lost.
“Getting engaged and hopefully winning the Premiership in the same week, that would be unreal,” said Ferguson.
“But there’s a lot of work to do first. Against Quins you have to play for 80 minutes, they have players all over the park that can change the pace of a game in a flash.
“And the rivalry between us is second to none, so the whole spectacle will be amazing. Hopefully a bit more amazing for the Exiles boys.”
Hatred as opposed to romance has burned brightly between the two teams – with 13 of the last 18 major trophies over those four seasons won by either Quins (10) or Exiles (3).
They say love conquers all, but whoever said that has never been on the sidelines at a Quins v Exiles game.
Ferguson proposed to Scottish partner Deena, whose relationship he referred to as a “Barasti love story”, while away on a trip to watch the Hong Kong Sevens at the weekend – proving you can love two things at once.
Built more like King Kong, Ferguson is a giant of a man with a giant heart, who can’t wait to come up against – and beat – his best mate on Friday.
Ferguson, who was forced to miss Exiles’ 47-25 defeat to Bahrain in the West Asia Cup final at the end of March because of an injured shoulder, said: “I’m fully fit and available and can’t wait to play. My best mate Sempy in the Quins team just got engaged last week too, so it’s a double header for me and him. But hopefully it’ll only be a double celebration for me.”
Romantic Ferguson, who only arrives back in the UAE on Thursday night, on the eve of the final, added: “It’s not really ideal being away in Hong Kong all week before the game, but it’s something that had been planned for months.
“I can’t wait to get back out there with the brothers. It was so frustrating not going to Bahrain, we waited until the last minute and I had to pull out the morning of the game. So I’m chomping at the bit to get out there and give a performance because I feel like I let the lads down.”
Exiles won the Dubai Sevens title for the first time in 11 years in December, but missed out on a possible hat-trick following defeat to Bahrain. Victory on Friday would give them their second double in three seasons following their 2015/16 UAE Premiership and West Asia Championship titles.
For Quins, they relinquished their grip on three of their four major honours from 2016/17’s quintuple – Sevens, West Asia Premiership and Cup.
But victory on Friday would still see them finish this term with a treble of their own – they retained their Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title in pre-season and beat Exiles 28-25 last month to hoist the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup.
And despite a difficult campaign including scores of injuries, the influential Ben Bolger forced into retirement and a raft of departures, head coach Mike McFarlane is proud of his players.
“We have battled hard and it has tested our culture, which has shone through. I’m really impressed with the attitude and application of all the players at the club,” he said.
“We’ve won two trophies so far. If we win this we will win three out of six trophies and we lost the West Asia Premiership by one point with a result nobody saw coming. To stand here and be able to say that with all the injuries and issues we’ve faced is nothing short of miraculous.”
Despite their troubles, that culture McFarlane talks of concerns a club that have been serial champions in recent years and simply know how to win.
He added: “Our second team have stepped up en masse regularly while still managing to get into the Top 5 in the UAE Conference. Our BaaBaas (third team) have made the final of the Community League while our fourth team, Sandstorm, finished mid-table in their first season. This is an incredible achievement.
“It’s a grand final. The boys know how to win. They are buzzing for it and have prepped meticulously for a very good Exiles team on Friday. It’s a great rivalry on the biggest stage so no doubt there will be fireworks.”
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