UAE rugby: Success is worth the wait for dominant ‘one club’ Abu Dhabi Harlequins

They played 17 games of 15-a-side this year, drew two, and lost just one. They also went through the sevens season undefeated.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins celebrate their fifth trophy of the season. Victor Besa for The National

ABU DHABI // Amid the confusion about what trophies were actually on offer this season, and how to go about winning them, one of the contenders made a pertinent point.

In West Asia rugby, whoever wins the last match of the season is usually considered tops.

Well, Abu Dhabi Harlequins won that one. And the game before that. And the game before that one, too. Just to underline their dominance, they played 17 games of 15-a-side this year, drew two, and lost just one. They also went through the sevens season undefeated.

The best side in West Asia? Blatantly. In fact, that should read the pre-eminent club.

The women’s team won their league, too, while the men’s second string took the Conference title.

It was not always like this. Since the turn of the decade, all the major teams have had their turn at being considered the best side in the region — apart from the only constant challengers, Harlequins.

Even the arrivistes from across the capital, Abu Dhabi Saracens, took the mantle of No 1 in 2015, despite giving away around four decades worth of history to their neighbours.


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It has been a frustrating wait for Harlequins, who have contrived to find a variety ways to deny themselves top billing.

In seasons when there has been a play-off at the end, they have been invincible in the league play, before faltering at the last.

Then, last season, they ceded too much ground to eventual double-winners Dubai Exiles, and when they could really have done with a final at the end, they were left wanting.

And now? On any measure available, Harlequins are the leaders of their field.

“It is our ‘One Club’ culture,” said Mike McFarlane, the Harlequins coach. “Everybody cares about each other. When I came in two years ago, that is the main thing I wanted to bring.

“If you have that sort of culture, you can do anything. Some of our [third team] Baa-baas haven’t played rugby before. Others have played at the top level. It doesn’t matter, they are all mates.

“That goes all the way through up to first-team level. Our women’s team came to watch us. We go and watch our women’s team.

“We were the only club to put forward ball boys for finals day. They were there the whole day, for all three games. It is a ‘One Club’ culture.”

For Andy Cole, the long-serving club chairman, this season’s success was payback for the hours — and dirhams — spent trying to balance the prohibitive cost of running a club in this region.

“For someone who is the head of a club, I guess it means you are doing the job right,” Cole said.

“We are trying get all levels of people playing, and to be at the pinnacle of men’s rugby, women’s rugby, and mini and youth, is fantastic. It is what it is all about.

“A number of players who have come through in recent years have come through our mini and youth section, to see them reach the seniors has been brilliant.”

Even though Harlequins voraciously hoarded all the trophies, there have been morsels of cheer all around Gulf rugby this season.

After lean times, Jebel Ali Dragons re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with, contesting two finals under the guidance of new coach Henry Paul.

Bahrain, one of the most successful clubs in Gulf rugby history, but who have also been absent from the main winners circle for some time, did similar.

“We have a really vibrant club again at first team level,” Louie Tonkin, the coach who has led Bahrain’s resurgence, said after they lost the West Asia Cup final in Abu Dhabi.

“We will be back next season, hopefully bigger and stronger, and for the years to come.”

The odd administrative issue apart, the campaign also has been broadly successful for a young federation still finding its way.

Because of the quality of the league, Apollo Perelini, the national team coach, will have the strongest crop of players to pick from to date when the UAE line up for the Asian Rugby Championship campaign next month.

The UAE pitched a female team exclusively peopled by Emiratis into international competition for the first time.

And the UAE Rugby Federation’s masterstroke of staging its grand finals day in front of a television audience was universally well received.

“[Finals day] has been awesome for the region,” Ross Samson, the captain of the defeated Dragons said, said. “I have been here for three-and-a-half years, and every year the standard is getting better.

“We have been doing our bit as clubs. The boys have been training well, we have been bringing in big name coaches, and it is good to see the union do their bit by bringing in the TV.

“Everyone loved it. Hopefully we can have a few more games like that, and getting on the TV will be nice for everyone.”

2016-17 Roll of Honour

Men’s rugby

Western Clubs Champions League

Winners: Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Runners up: Dubai Exiles

Dubai Rugby Sevens

Winners: Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Runners up: Jebel Ali Dragons

West Asia Premiership

Winners: Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Runners up: Doha

West Asia Cup

Winners: Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Runners up: Bahrain

UAE Premiership

Winners: Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Runners up: Jebel Ali Dragons

UAE Conference

Winners: Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Runners up: Al Ain Amblers

UAE Community League

Winners: Jebel Ali Dragons III

Runners up: Abu Dhabi Harlequins Barbarians

Women’s rugby

Dubai Rugby Sevens

Winners: Dubai Hurricanes

Runners up: Heartbeat Tigers

Cross Border League

Winners: Abu Dhabi Harlequins

Runners up: Dubai Hurricanes

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