It seems increasingly likely that an engaging West Asia Premiership title-race is going to come down to the wire following another enthralling weekend of action.
Dubai Exiles were demoted from top spot following a narrow 19-11 defeat in Bahrain – a first defeat in five games – with emphatic wins for Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Jebel Ali Dragons seeing them jump into first and second respectively.
Quins lead the way on 35 points after trouncing Dubai Hurricanes 55-15 at The Sevens, a game which also served as a semi-final for the UAE Premiership Cup – Quins will face Exiles in the final.
They are a point in front of Exiles and head coach Mike McFarlane said: “It’s a good win where our set-piece dominated. It was hot but the depth in quality told with an excellent impact from our bench. Our core skills and patience improved in the second half and we put the game to bed.”
The gap between the top four has been closed from six to four following the weekend, thanks largely to Bahrain’s marginal victory over Jacques Benade’s Exiles.
And coach Louie Tonkin feels the final round of fixtures – when they welcome Dragons on March 9 – will be crucial.
“It’s going to come down to the last game,” said the Welshman.
“There’s some big games left, Quins v Exiles next week is a big one and will play a big part, then it’s us and Dragons in the last round. We’ll end up where we end up.”
Despite all eyes focused firmly on the curtain coming down on the Premiership season in three weeks’ time, Tonkin insists he and his players are trying to stay as focused as possible on one game at a time.
“We’re trying really hard to focus on ourselves, as difficult as it is, taking it one game at a time,” he said.
“We’ve got Canes next week and they’re a very dangerous side, with a great scrum. We’re taking that game as a priority.
“We have to travel then to Eagles but we’re trying to focus on ourselves and not other things. The pleasing thing is Canes can’t catch us now. They’re 11 points behind with two games left so we’re qualified for the West Asia Cup, although we’re desperate for a home semi-final.”
Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn was happy his side got back to winning ways, soaring to a 57-7 bonus point win over Eagles to begin to erase defeat two weeks prior to Exiles.
“The boys looked a lot fresher after a weekend off,” said Quinn.
“It’s important now we go out and win every game and get as many points as we can, both in terms of bonus points and points on the scoreboard. As long as we get that job done, we will end up where we end up.”
And he was impressed with a much-improved Eagles, who will more than likely feel aggrieved at the margin of defeat.
Quinn added: “I think Eagles will be disappointed with their performance because I think they’ve got a lot better and I don’t think they quite deserved the humping they got.
“They’re certainly improving.”
Dubai Exiles head to Bahrain for a mouthwatering West Asia Premiership clash on Friday knowing they need to back up their last result – a 35-15 roasting of Jebel Ali Dragons that saw them ascend to the top of the table for the first time this season.
The to and fro nature of this season’s championship is set to sway yet again this weekend with Bahrain hosting Jacques Benade’s side in yet another match that is sure to have seismic ramifications on the destiny of the trophy.
Exiles sit three points ahead of Abu Dhabi Harlequins, four ahead of Dragons and six ahead of Bahrain, although they have played a game more than all three.
And No8 Jaen Botes insists victory against Dragons must be built upon.
“It’s a big game this weekend for us, we need to back up the performance against Dragons,” said the UAE international.
“We felt a click in the camp against Dragons that we will look to bounce off coming into this weekend. Bahrain are a strong side, well drilled and well coached and it will be some task heading up there. We’re looking forward to the challenge and it should be a good game.”
Benade is without starting centres James Crossley and Terry Jacobs, while influential flanker Matt Mills is also missing. And he believes patience will be key to victory.
“It’s a big game and will definitely be very difficult to come back from Bahrain with a win,” said the South African.
“They are well coached with a good pack and have a half-back partnership that controls the game really well.
“It’s always great to go Bahrain and play there. They have a great set-up with a crowd that is very passionate and want to see the home team doing well.
“We will need to be very disciplined, focus on what we need to do and I keep saying it but we must be patient with the ball.
“It should be a great game and we are all looking forward to a very physical battle.”
Bahrain are right back in the title mix following their 66-0 slaughter of Abu Dhabi Saracens two weeks ago, and coach Louie Tonkin is buoyed by the fact three of his side’s remaining four games are at home, plus his hosts are at near full strength.
But he is expecting a bruising encounter against a pack that dominated Dragons last time out.
“Exiles shocked the league and showed how good they can be when they beat Jebel Ali,” said the Welshman.
“It’s no easy feat to go there and win in the fashion they did so we know it’s a big test. But at home we haven’t’ lost all season and we’ve got some players back so we’re pretty much at full strength so we think it’s going to be a humdinger of a match.
“We know it will be hugely physical and we just hope we can play our own game. We’re only six points behind with a game in hand and there’s some big games coming up, Quins away and then Dragons at home last game of the season.
“We still believe we’re in the mix, there’s talk now of a three-horse race but we feel differently. We’ve got three of our last four games at home but we’re trying to focus on this game, not the big picture at the moment.”
With games counting down and the title race likely to go to the wire, teams are keenly aware every game counts and bonus points crucial. There’s double significance to Quins’ visit to Dubai Hurricanes, with the game also acting as the teams’ semi-final of the UAE Premiership Cup, with the winner advancing to take on Exiles in the final.
“This weekend is massive for us, double header or not,” said Quins flanker Sean Stevens.
“We are at a point in the league where every point is vital. We are looking to put in an overall performance against Canes to the standard we pride ourselves on at Quins.”
Even though they’re not in the title picture, Canes are desperate for victory that will give them a shot at silverware, while they are also eyeing a top-four berth that would see them qualify for the end of season West Asia Cup.
“At this time of the year and where we are, we are still looking above us to try and get in the top four, this game is crucial, it’s a final,” said coach Mike Wernham.
“Exiles are already there (UAE Premiership Cup final) and are big rivals of ours so that’s a big incentive. If we win we get another shot, having not done ourselves justice against them this season.
“But we’re focused on Quins. We know Quins are back to winning ways with two massive results so will be full of confidence. We know Quins can punish us from anywhere on the field so we’ve got to be on our game.
“We had a good confidence booster against (Dubai) Eagles (won 36-23 two weeks ago), played some good exciting rugby at times although we were peeved we gave up so many points. Defence was a big focus for us in pre-season so we weren’t happy with that.”
Elsewhere, Eagles are in the firing line for a vengeful Dragons outfit who are still hurting from that Exiles defeat.
Andy Buist takes charge of the side in Henry Paul’s absence – he is helping former Wales international and friend Kingsley Jones coach Canada in the Americas Rugby Championship.
And Dragons skipper Ross Samson is determined to get back to winning ways, although he is aware even the best sports teams have their off days.
“The Exiles loss was not ideal but every team will drop points at some stage in a season, even Barcelona lose games now and again,” said the Scottish scrum-half.
“The Eagles have a great set-up and I’ve got nothing but respect for the way they have gone about things this season on and off the pitch. They are in the middle of a challenging first season but we won’t be showing them any love over Valentine’s Day weekend.”
Of being without Paul for the next few weeks, Samson added: “It’s an amazing opportunity for HP to go away and develop his coaching career, we are all really proud of that achievement and he will bring back some new ideas that can only be a positive thing for us.”
Eagles will be buoyed by how they went toe to toe with Canes a few weeks ago and fly-half Sean Carey feels there is no better test of how far they’ve come welcoming the Dragons to their Dubai Sports City lair.
“It will be good to see how far we’ve come from our first ever game (a friendly against Dragons in pre-season) and then again before the Sevens break,” said the Irishman.
“Our last two games have been close and we feel we are improving in areas each week. There’s still a lot of work to be done but there’s no better test than the Dragons.”
15:00 Dubai Hurricanes v Abu Dhabi Harlequins
17:00 Dubai Eagles v Jebel Ali Dragons
17:00 Bahrain v Dubai Exiles
As a player, he represented England in several Six Nations tournaments – now Henry Paul is coaching in a tournament dubbed the ‘Americas Six Nations’.
New Zealander Paul played international rugby league for the country of his birth and rugby union for the Red Rose, having qualified via a grandfather born in Liverpool as well as England being where he spent the majority of his playing career – in league with Wigan Warriors and the Bradford Bulls and in union with Gloucester.
The 44-year-old now lives in the UAE where he is head coach of Jebel Ali Dragons and director of rugby at Kings Al Barsha School in Dubai.
Right now though he’s in America, helping to coach Canada in the America’s Rugby Championship (ARC), having been drafted in by good friend and former Wales international Kingsley Jones, who was appointed Canada’s head coach in September.
The 2018 Americas Rugby Championship is in its third edition, and features Canada and the United States as well as South American countries Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and an Argentina XV side, the Pumas’ secondary national team.
Paul and Jones – who earned 10 Welsh caps between 1996-98 before injury curtailed his international career – worked together at Russia, with the duo steering the Bears to their maiden Rugby World Cup appearance in 2011.
“Kingsley has been Canada coach since September last year so he’s new to the role,” said Paul, speaking ahead of the Canucks’ second 2018 ARC game against the US on Saturday.
“I have been asked to assist Canada in the Americas Rugby Championship. I’m assisting Kingsley for the next four games v the US, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
“We work well together and have always bounced ideas off each other. He asked if I was available, I asked the school about the possibility and they were 100 percent ‘go for it’.
Former Wales international Kingsley Jones and Paul took Russia to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
“They’ve been in camp four weeks already so needed a new coach for the next four weeks. I worked with Kingsley during my time with Russia and he put my name forward to be their sevens head coach back in 2012.
“I’ve only been in camp a few days but the players and management have been very welcoming. There is a lot of young talent so it’s an exciting role but it will be tricky for us.”
Canada lost Saturday’s game 29-10 to the US in Sacramento, California, making it two defeats to start the ARC following a loss against Uruguay in their opener on January 27.
That 38-29 defeat came at their home of BC Place in Vancouver, home of the MLS team the Vancouver Whitecaps and the BC Lions of the Canadian Football league.
It also served as the first leg of the 2019 Rugby World Cup qualification for the Americas’ region. Canada lost the second leg 32-31 a week later as Uruguay progressed to Japan, although Canada will have one final chance to earn a spot at a round robin Repechage tournament in November.
In the ARC, meanwhile, Canada have three games remaining and Jones and Paul will hope to finish with a flourish as they host Brazil in their next game at Westhills Stadium in Langford, British Columbia, on Saturday.
They close the tournament with two road games, taking on Argentina in Jujuy on February 24 and Chile in La Serena on March 3.
As well as boosting his coaching repertoire, Paul insists Kings and Dragons are both behind him, even though it means being away from his coaching duties in the Emirates.
Paul will be back to take charge of Dragons in what could be a crucial game at Bahrain in the West Asia Premiership’s final round of fixtures on March 9.
Paul making his England debut against France in the 2002 Six Nations.
Paul added: “It is an honour and privilege to represent Canada and gives me great experience, as well as for Kings Al Barsha where I’m director of rugby and for Dragons leading into the business end of the season, when I’m back before the Bahrain game.
“It is also a great chance for Andy Buist and Jonny MacDonald to develop their own coaching experience while I’m away as they lead the boys against Dubai Eagles, Abu Dhabi Saracens and Dubai Hurricanes.
“I’m fortunate the principal at Kings sees the value in what I would gain from this for the benefit of the schools’ rugby programme and also the Dragons, especially our club sponsors Hesco, who were made up for me as it’s an honour for the club I’m here.”