They will be heavy underdogs this weekend, but a full strength Dubai Exiles will go to Bahrain on Friday with nothing to lose and everything to gain in the West Asia Premiership final.
Louie Tonkin’s side will play host to Jacques Benade’s resurgent Exiles, who overcame a crippling injury list at the start of the 2018/19 season and booked a showdown with the dominant force in Gulf rugby this weekend thanks to a gritty 31-16 triumph in Abu Dhabi against Harlequins last Friday.
Bahrain – who are vastly improved in the three years under Welshman Tonkin’s guidance and won a maiden trophy in eight years when they beat Exiles to lift the West Asia Cup a year ago – have been head and shoulders above the competition this term.
They added the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title in pre-season when Quins were beaten. They again tasted disappointment at the Dubai Sevens as Dubai Hurricanes earned a surprising win over Quins but, in the main title race, they are without compare.
Bahrain have plundered 14 wins from 15 Premiership games to top the standings on 68 points – 13 ahead of second-placed Quins, with 577 points scored, 72 more than anyone else, and their 180 points conceded a gargantuan 208 fewer than the next best team (Quins 388).
Still, Exiles have one distinct advantage heading into Friday’s final, they have beaten the behemoths this season – delivering their sole defeat in October – and they will head west with confidence.
“Everyone is buzzing. We seem to be hitting our stride at the right time,” said Exiles’ Northern Irish lock Stephen Ferguson.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves but in finals rugby anything can happen. We beat Bahrain at home and ran them close over there a few weeks ago. Another 10 minutes and who knows what the score would of been.”
Exiles will rightly be buoyed by recent encounters. Despite Bahrain’s rampaging march, Exiles lost just 21-10 in the most recent league fixture, in Bahrain, at the beginning of February.
They are the sole side to inflict defeat on Bahrain this season, winning 31-20 at The Sevens in the first league encounter in October, although they then forfeited the second game a month later. Last season’s cup final will also be fresh in the memory. Bahrain eventually won 47-25 but having led early on, trailed 26-25 on the hour before running away with it in the final 10 minutes.
“I’m really proud of this group of players and they are very excited to travel to Bahrain,” added coach Benade.
“A place we all really enjoy playing in front of a big crowd and against a semi-pro outfit. They have such a strong squad to pick from but we are all looking forward to the challenge.
“They will be very hard to beat but it is a great feeling to be in the final again. Three out of the last four years is a great achievement for the Exiles.
“We have a few things to work on this week from our last game against them but as I said before, very proud of the players to be in the final again. There’s a good atmosphere in this squad and they are enjoying playing together.”
Quins had looked destined for a final date against Bahrain but Exiles led 13-6 at half-time last weekend and, after withstanding immense second half pressure, played an almost flawless second 40 minutes to see out the victory.
“It was just all action, tries, mistakes, yellow cards and scuffles,” added Ferguson. “It was a cracker and to come out with an away win was exceptional. Onwards to Bahrain.”
It was a rather more straightforward night for Bahrain, who finally ended Jebel Ali Dragons’ Premiership defence with a 56-7 mauling.
Tonkin bemoaned that a depleted Dragons were unable to compete, but was happy to progress to Friday’s showpiece.
“It was a good win. A big night for the club with a semi-final at home,” said Tonkin.
“We appreciate Dragons coming to play. It was a shame as it was obvious they had a number of key players missing, some guys who have been in the team a while. They didn’t even have any coaches, which was disappointing.
“They couldn’t give a true account of themselves. As well as they played and their effort was amazing, I think they were quite disappointed after the game, they didn’t give it their best crack with their best team not available.”
On his own team’s performance, he added: “Our boys did pretty well. We scored four tries either side of half-time. We managed territory for the majority of the game, we put the ball behind them and forced errors.
“It was interesting to see Exiles beat Quins at Quins so we know that will be another big and very different challenge this week. We’ve got to dust ourselves down and go again.”
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