x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A new sporting rivalry is forming in Dubai’s EAFL

Stallions and Barracudas face off on Friday at Dubai Sports City and are favourites to meet again in the EAFL final

Dubai Stallions coach Andre Sommersell, left, takes a training session at Dubai Sports City ahead of Friday’s game. Satish Kumar / The National
Dubai Stallions coach Andre Sommersell, left, takes a training session at Dubai Sports City ahead of Friday’s game. Satish Kumar / The National

It is a Dubai derby with a difference. It is not football’s Al Ahli v Al Nasr. Not even rugby union’s Dubai Hurricanes v Dubai Exiles.

On Friday night, the UAE’s two leading American football teams, the Dubai Stallions and Dubai Barracudas, face off in the first match taking place at Dubai Sports City (DSC).

The two clubs are never too far apart.

On Sunday, as the Barracudas trained at DSC’s indoor facilities, the Stallions were going through their practice session a few hundred yards away on the outside fields.

Stallions head coach Andre Sommersell watched as his team went through the plays that have served his players well since the inception of the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) two years ago.

“We teach them the fundamentals of the game. The game is about repetition,” the 33-year-old American said. Plays are rehearsed over and over.

Sommersell’s message clearly is getting through. So far, the Stallions have won all of their games, including a forfeit over Al Ain, and have wrapped up the top spot in the regular season.

When his team met the Barracudas in November at Jebel Ali, the Stallions recorded a 27-14 victory. The coach is confident that streak will continue on Friday.

“The Barracudas have got a good squad, but I don’t think there’s any other team in the league that can beat us,” said Sommersell, who also plays for the team. “Again, we have a lot of guys that are injured, and I prefer to keep them out of this game so they can rest themselves. We have two major games coming up. I’m not saying this is not a major game, but we have already clinched the first round, the first spot in the division.”

The “major games” Sommersell refers to are the post-season play-offs on February 28, in which the Stallions will face the league’s fourth-place team, Al Ain, while second faces third for the right to play Desert Bowl II.

Friday’s move to Dubai Sport City has been a long time coming.

“We were meant to play here once before, but we ended up playing at Jebel Ali,” Sommersell said. “We were all a little disappointed, but the league has been trying their best to make sure the fields are ready and up to standards.”

Dubai Barracudas quarterback Zavier Cobb, a newcomer to the EAFL, has been pleasantly surprised by the level of play and facilities.

“I’ve played football since I was five, in middle school, high school and arena football,” said Cobb, 32. “The challenge [of playing in the UAE] has been great. I didn’t expect the level to be this high, and I’m definitely enjoying it.”

In their last game, the Dubai Barracudas beat the Abu Dhabi Wildcats 28-14, and Cobb is eyeing a victory in Friday’s showdown to take them into play-offs.

“The Stallions are a wonderful team, they are unbeaten so far, but it would be a great momentum booster for us if we win,” he said. “We collectively have to do our job if we are to do that, but it will be very difficult. They have a great organisation there.”

Barracudas coach Kyle Jordan believes his team can upset their Dubai rivals this time around.

“We’ve been improving since the first game with Stallions,” he said. “That day we went into the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead, so defeat left a bad taste.”

After the win against Abu Dhabi, a comprehensive 28-0 crushing of Al Ain further restored faith among Jordan, Cobb and the Barracudas.

“With the way we’ve played in the last two matches, we feel confident if we do things right that we can win,” the coach said.

So was there a change in tactics following that defeat to the Stallions?

“I wouldn’t say we’ve done any specific changes, but we’ve made gradual changes during the season due to the new personnel,” Jordan said. “What their strengths are, and how to best take advantage of their skills. It takes time to adjust to the influx of players.”

The improvement means that the Barracudas have secured second place, and will face Abu Dhabi in the play-offs. Jordan is not looking that far ahead.

“First, we must get through this game. Abu Dhabi is a good team, but right now our focus is on the Stallions,” he said. “We’re doing everything to be sure we’re ready.”

In the four-team EAFL, everyone makes it to the play-offs, “but it’s were you go from there that matters,” Sommersell said.

Whatever Friday’s outcome, chances are good that the season finale on March 14 will also see the third instalment of Dubai’s newest rivalry.

akhaled@thenational.ae