DUBAI // Jebel Ali Dragons kept alive their hopes of a triple crown of domestic rugby's top competitions as they came from behind twice to beat Doha at the Centre of Excellence tonight.
The UAE Premiership champions avenged the defeat they suffered against the same opposition in the opening match of the Gulf Top Six season two weeks previously in Qatar – but only just.
After a typically assured display with the boot, Paul Beard, the Abu Dhabi-born Doha fly-half, seemed to have sealed the win in the tourists' favour when he pounced for a close-range try late.
His ensuing conversion gave him 17 points for the game, and more importantly, a single-point lead for his side.
However, Andy Russell, the UAE full-back, eventually settled what had been an intriguing kicking duel between him and Beard by landing the late penalty which brought the Dragons a 29-27 victory.
"It was like history repeating itself at the end because that was exactly what happened at their place [two weeks ago]," said Paul Hart, the Dragons captain.
"When they got the put in to the scrum in the last minute, I thought, 'Here we go again'. It was not a good performance but we managed to guts it out."
The win rarely looked certain for the home side. Their makeshift forward-pack struggled to cope with a powerful Doha eight, and the Qatari side held a 20-13 lead in the second half.
However, the sin-binning of Liam Frost, Doha's outstanding captain, for hacking down Russell, proved telling. Russell, who was given a starting place after being afforded a rare Friday afternoon off from work at the Global Cricket Academy, was unerring with the boot. The South African No 15 contributed 19 points.
The win was otherwise founded on the defensive effort of Matt Bates, the Australian flanker who has been handed a chance to impress due to injury to Byron Kraemer.
Hart pointed to the fact that his side started slowly in the UAE Premiership campaign before Christmas, and yet still ended as champions, as a reason for optimism.
"We are still not clicking but we have definitely grown in character," the captain said.
"To win the UAE Premiership, we started off with a narrow loss to [Abu Dhabi Harlequins] and then just slowly progressed from there, then peaked for the final. This is just round three and we are miles away from where we want to be, but we are moving in the right direction.
"The win means we still have the maths on our side."
In another match, Charles Lilley continued his uncharacteristic run of scoring form by touching down a third try in the space of two matches against Dubai Exiles, as the Abu Dhabi Harlequins extended the only unbeaten record in the Top Six to three matches.
The veteran hooker’s effort was one of eight for the holders, who prepared for arguably the toughest test of their title defence in Doha next weekend with a 47-0 win over the Exiles.
“It was a clinical performance from us and we are happy with the result,” said Chris Davies, the Quins director of rugby.
“We travel to Doha next week and we certainly expect nothing other than a tough battle as they look to bounce back from their Dragons defeat.”
Quins were not the only ones toasting victory at Zayed Sports City this evening.
Abu Dhabi Saracens, their city rivals, have temporarily moved in to share ground with their neighbours while renovation work goes on at Al Ghazal, their usual home.
The new tenants secured a bonus-point win over Dubai Wasps in the Gulf Conference, in a display that was chiefly memorable for the return of their club captain and long-term absentee, Lele Tusitala.
“It was great to have Lele back and captaining the team,” said Pete Sampson, the UAE hooker who handed the captaincy armband back to the returning back-row forward. “After a year off, he was epic and scored the try of the game.”
Steve Botha oversaw a triumphant first assignment in his new role as Saracens head coach, but he insists there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“I’m happy with the performance, but we let three or four tries slip,” Botha said. “There is lots to work on, but I am quietly confident.”