Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, and Abu Dhabi Harlequins, pictured during a match at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence in Dubai on February 21, 2014, meet in their fifth final in 18 months on Friday. Jaime Puebla / The National
Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, and Abu Dhabi Harlequins, pictured during a match at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence in Dubai on February 21, 2014, meet in their fifth final in 18 months on Friday. JaiShow more

Familiarity but little contempt between Harlequins and Dragons ahead of West Asia Cup final



ABU DHABI // It has been an eerie build-up to the climax to the domestic rugby season.

Most finals in recent history here have been pepped up by a pervading atmosphere of loathing between the opposing sides.

Now, though, ahead of the fifth major final between Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Jebel Ali Dragons in 18 months, it feels more like a love-in.

Where once there was mutual antipathy, now it is basically the Mutual Appreciation Society – which feels odd.

“Quins have had a brilliant Gulf Top Six and we will be giving them the respect they deserve after a campaign like that,” said Ross Mills, the Dragons coach.

“I think it could be the best standard of match in the history of rugby here, if you look at the players they are putting out and the players we are putting out.

“I hope it doesn’t rain, I hope it isn’t windy, I hope there’s a big crowd there to watch.

“If they win, I’ll be the first person in their changing room after the game congratulating them.”

If Mills wanted to use the same ruse with which he stoked his players’ fire before the UAE Premiership final in November, he is going to struggle.

The lead-in to that match against Dubai Hurricanes was genuinely spiteful. So much so, Mills printed off the damning things said about his players and made them read them in the dressing room before kick off.

No chance of doing the same on Friday. Jeremy Manning, the easy-going player-coach of Harlequins, struggles to invoke anything but good will towards him.

His laid-back manner worked a treat in the league campaign. Quins took 46 out of a possible 50 points, in winning all 10 of their Gulf Top Six matches.

To celebrate in the intervening weekend between then and Friday's final, Manning and two Quins first-teamers, Ben and Sam Bolger, went to play sevens in Hong Kong.

Not that he is unaware of the size of the task this weekend. He acknowledged his players still have the memories of three lost finals against the Dragons last season.

“I think a lot of boys do have extra motivation to taking that extra step further,” Manning said.

“Last year hurt a lot of the boys that we didn’t come through with the win. We dominated a lot of last year but slumped in the finals.

“We did have a good second half of the season and the boys are looking forward to it.

“I have said it all season, we are there just to have fun and play with a smile on our faces.”

The stage is almost the same as this time 12 months ago. Back then, Quins also had a 100 per cent record from their league matches when they hosted the final.

Dragons brought bus loads of supporters with them, who helped inspire the engrossing comeback they conjured to take the title.

Away fans are expected to be out in force again on Friday, with bus loads heading to the capital.

“Both teams have game-changers in lots of different positions,” Mills said. “We know that if we are not on top of our game in terms of discipline, Luke Stevenson [the Quins fly-half] will ping them over from all over the paddock.

“We know that if we let Jeremy Manning have the freedom to control the game, we will be in for a tough game.

“That said, we also have our own game-winners.”

West Asia Cup final

Abu Dhabi Harlequins v Jebel Ali Dragons

Zayed Sports City, Abu Dhabi

Friday, 5pm kick-off, free admission

Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Mark Hibbs, Mike Ballard, Tom Wilcox, Graham Murphy, Ben Bolger, Billy Graham, Rich Davis, Phil Abraham, Ed Talbot, Andrew Hall, Sam Bolger, Matt Hutchings, Chris Marshall, Jonny Marshall, Diarmuid Kelly, Joel Pikari, Iziq Foa’i, Patrick Hegarty, Jeremy Manning, Rob Buaserau, Luke Stevenson, Chris Jones-Griffiths

Jebel Ali Dragons

Sandy Burley, Al Golding, Paul Hart, Joe Cooper, Sean Crombie, Nick Taylor, Niall Statham, Adam Telford, Andrew Carphin, Luke Blane, Ben Blamire, Dan Minks, Olly Murray, Kris Greene, Dan Bell, Murray Strang, Rory Binder, Taif Al Delamie, Imad Reyal, Ross Samson, Ray Gilburt, Brian Odongo

Previous winners

2013 – Jebel Ali Dragons

2012 – Doha

2011 – Dubai Hurricanes

pradley@thenational.ae

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