Dubai Tigers set for 'biggest game in club's history' in West Asia final against Bahrain

Region's leading rugby side to be decided at Tigers Park in Dubai on Saturday

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Duane Aholelei, the Dubai Tigers captain, has labelled Saturday’s West Asia Premiership final against Bahrain the biggest game in the club’s history.

It says much about the gap in experience the UAE side are giving away to their guests in the season’s showpiece fixture that that history is only just stretching into double figures.

The Tigers are celebrating their 10th year of existence this season. They are hoping to celebrate by lifting a second major trophy of the campaign, having won the title at the Dubai Sevens in December. They are also top placed ahead of the UAE Premiership playoffs to follow.

Between them and regional supremacy is a side who have been well used to accruing major titles for over half a century.

Bahrain first came into being as a section of the British Club in Manama in 1971. They became their own rugby club three years later, and have been one of the giants of Arabian Gulf rugby in the time since. For much of the most recent past, they have been the side to beat in West Asia.

The Tigers are unlikely to be daunted by their opposition’s impressive history, though. They secured a home final when they trounced Bahrain 41-28 at the same venue back in March.

Aholelei said that result will count for nothing when the finale gets underway at 3pm at Tigers Park in Al Sufouh on Saturday.

“Everyone is ready and excited, and the whole club is buzzing for it,” Aholelei said. “That game was the last one of the round-robin and finals footy is always a different beast from the regular season.

“We all know Bahrain are a really top side and we have been reminding the boys we can’t dwell on that one game. They have shown how good they are for the past couple of seasons, and we expect them to come back strong and firing.”

The Tigers know from bitter experience the difference between regular season games and finals days. They made the running in the UAE Premiership last season, only to lose the final in Al Ain to a Dubai Exiles side they had beaten twice previously in the campaign.

“This is probably the biggest game in the club’s 10-year history,” Aholelei said. “To win this would be amazing for everyone at the club. But winning it, it is going to take a lot of effort to get it over the line.”

Aholelei is aware of the significance of the fixture for his club, even though his own involvement with the Tigers has been relatively brief so far.

He has been in Dubai for around two years now, having had his path in rugby altered by Covid. The prop forward had been on his way home to Tonga from the United States, where he had been playing for the Atlanta side in Major League Rugby, when the coronavirus pandemic interrupted his travel plans.

“I was on my way home during Covid,” he said. “I was stuck in the US, then finally got to go to New Zealand. I was stuck there for six months as there were complications travelling to Tonga, then this opportunity came up and I thought, ‘Why not?’

“I would rather go and play rugby rather than sit waiting to go to Tonga forever. I hopped on a plane and the rest is history. I’ve been here ever since.”

His arrival to play and coach for the Tigers has been a major boon for the club. As well as leading the first XV's pursuit of trophies, he coaches in the club’s academy setup.

Aholelei has played in some of the sport’s leading rugby nations, including briefly for the French giants Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14.

He acknowledges he had no idea of what to expect from rugby in the Middle East, but he said he has been impressed by the standard of the game here.

“When I first got here, I didn’t realise how big rugby was going to be with the youth in the UAE,” he said. “When I arrived, it was mind-blowing to see how many kids and parents were turning up. That makes you excited to give back to rugby.

“And games like this also contribute to taking the game of rugby to a higher standard in the region. It is amazing. I had no idea what I was coming to, so I have been very pleasantly surprised.”

Updated: April 11, 2024, 5:51 AM