Having had an entire season without any rugby at all, Abu Dhabi Harlequins capped a triumphant return to the sport by snatching the UAE Premiership title from Dubai Exiles after a thrilling final on Saturday night.
While Covid rules meant rugby players in the capital had to go without last season, at least clubs up in Dubai were able to play a version of the sport using modified rules to limit contact.
The Exiles won that competition, just as they had the UAE Premiership the previous campaign – even if they did have to toast that success on Zoom, because of the onset of the pandemic. Going into the final, the Exiles had not lost a XVs match in the best part of three years.
Aside from having a season of rugby development to make up, Harlequins also gave up a headstart in the final at The Sevens, too.
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Thanks to the impeccable kicking of Marcus Kruger, the remarkable schoolboy No 10 for the Exiles, the defending champions built a 22-10 lead with an hour gone in the final.
Bayed on by raucous travelling support, though, Harlequins hit back. By the end, they were 34-28 winners, with James McCarthy scoring two tries, Henry Brandon Brown and James Wilson one apiece, while their forward dominance was rewarded with a penalty try.
“We have a saying: ice cold, raging inferno,” Matty Thomas, the Harlequins captain, said. “We have to be ice cold between the ears, but the badge on our chest is our raging inferno.”
“It was about making sure we kept our heads, went through our processes, and we work hard enough. That allowed us to play and get a win. But all credit to the Exiles as it was a hell of a fixture.”
Thomas, the Quins fullback who is in his fifth season with the club, said the absence of rugby for so long had been tough to take.
“Psychologically, it was hard as you miss the community and camaraderie of being in a rugby club,” Thomas said.
“But the guys clicked together very quickly. The club has worked tirelessly as a whole to get better.”
“We thought they had a head start, but we trusted in our ability and there was a process that we set out at the start of the year in terms of where we were trying to get to.”
“It was sped up by the inclusion of some quality players, but what we have is heart and real commitment to each other. All we need is each other.”
“That came through here because we needed to grind out a good win against a tough team.”
Niall Lear, the Quins coach, praised his players for refusing to give in – either when they were without rugby, or when they were down in the final.
“I think that was the final everyone wanted to see in UAE rugby,” Lear said.
“[Kruger] was absolutely magnificent. It literally looked like he was never going to miss. Our message to the boys at halftime was to keep plugging away. We luckily got our noses in front.”
“Covid made us question some of the things we were doing as a club. That was brilliant for us, to re-evaluate and set up some short, medium and long term goals.”
“But for me, it is just amazing because it is just best mates, really, that we are playing with. For some, this might be their last hurrah. For others, this is just the start.”
Jacques Benade, the Exiles coach, was left ruing some close calls. When Exiles held a nine-point cushion in the second half, McCarthy was ruled to have knocked on while attempting an interception, rather than deliberately knocking the ball down as Exiles attacked.
Kruger kicked the ensuing penalty for offside, to give Exiles a 22-10 lead. They were also denied a try, on account of a forward pass.
“I think for UAE rugby this was unbelievable,” Benade said. “To get a final like that, boys playing rugby like that, I think everyone on the sideline enjoyed the game.”
“At one stage, when we were 22-10 up, we were six on one. The ball was slapped down. The player was never in a position to catch the ball.”
“At 22-10, if there was a card for them, I thought the game was over. It didn’t happen. Sometimes decisions go against you, and sometimes decisions go for you.”
“We saw that incident differently, but I think it had a massive impact on the game. But coming back from 22-10 down, you have to give Harlequins a lot of credit. There was great character shown by both teams.”
“For me, it was just unbelievable to see two amateur teams playing rugby like that. It was a massive credit for UAE rugby.”