x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Emirates Palace hotel is the star of the show

Many of the fans at Harlequins v Wasps seemed unsure who to cheer for - but they loved the Emirates Palace and Abu Dhabi.

Spectators enjoy last night's action between London Wasps and Harlequins.
Spectators enjoy last night's action between London Wasps and Harlequins.

The MC was fighting an uphill battle from the start. "Come on you Wasps!" he shouted down the microphone, with all the vigour of Timmy Mallet trying to rouse unenthusiastic remnants of the Wide Awake Club.

The response was muted at best. "Come on, get behind the home side," he implored again. At least he got a reply this time. "No!"

Transposing a home fixture 4,000kms to the lawn of a luxury hotel in the desert brought with it plenty of positives for London Wasps. A baying home support was certainly not one of them, however.

They had always been pushing their luck on that front, seeing as this patch of the Emirates has been staunchly Harlequins since they signed on the Abu Dhabi Bats as an affiliate club three years ago.

Not that the victorious Quins were exactly vociferously backed, either.

In truth, most people seemed a little perplexed as to who to support, and it made for a peculiarly eerie atmosphere.

"There isn't much atmosphere - maybe it's because they aren't playing well," Megan Wynes, a magazine editor who lives in Abu Dhabi, said at half time.

"You never get any atmosphere in the VIP section at any event, but there should be more noise from outside."

Perhaps the lack of household names on show was a contributing factor.

Neither club had been able to tour with full-strength squads because of international call-ups ahead of the Six Nations. And some of the remaining pedigree players were well hidden.

One group of blue-shirted supporters in the main grandstand unfurled a banner saying: "Merci Serge."

It was directed at Serge Betsen, Wasps' best-known player, who had visited the French school in the capital to address the children earlier in the day.

The former France forward only made a belated appearance midway through the second half, however, and even he caught the bug of dropping the ball from his colleagues.

Without much stardust on the pitch, there were plenty of other distractions off their field, given the setting at the Emirates Palace hotel, where a temporary ground was created on the lawns.

"This place is jaw-dropping - what a hotel!" Neil Hayman, a travelling Quins fan, said.

"The last game I went to was Harlequins against London Irish on Boxing Day and it was bitterly cold. This is very different."

Hayman was celebrating his 63rd birthday at the game. His tickets were a gift from his son-in-law, who had spotted that the fixture was coinciding with their holiday in Dubai.

"We had the holiday booked first and then heard Wasps were bringing the game out here," Elliot Clark said.

"It was perfect timing, and it was just a coincidence that it was his birthday as well. I booked the tickets when I was at home.

"I was on the train and I got the tickets through the Wasps ticketline and there were no grandstand tickets left. Our biggest worry was getting from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and back again."

For Conor O'Shea, the director of rugby for Harlequins, victory meant it was a job well done, no matter the reception it received.

"This has been an unbelievable place to come," he said.

"Hopefully some of the people did enjoy what they saw, especially the first half. It was a very physical game of rugby.

"I hope we are back here many times in the future, maybe not playing many games, but certainly with Harlequins in the future."

The defeated side were less enthused.

"It is great playing in front of a packed crowd when everyone is cheering for you, but here it was a bit mixed," Tom Varndell, the Wasps winger, said.

"It was probably a half and half split between Wasps and Quins, but that wasn't an issue. As a team we made too many errors. It was nothing to do with whether there was a packed crowd or a good atmosphere.

"We knew it wasn't going to be like a packed Adams Park [Wasps' home ground in High Wycombe], but it was a special occasion and we didn't play like it."

Varndell was one of the few players who had played in the UAE before.

Yet this occasion differed markedly from the times he played in front of throbbing stands in an England shirt at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. However, he suggested his side were the ones to blame for the somewhat funereal atmosphere, given the way they played.

"There was no outside factors which contributed to it," he said. "There were a lot of frustrated fans who wanted the game to be at Adams Park and couldn't make it here.

"It was a big occasion for the club to come out here and get the victory and we have let ourselves down again."

pradley@thenational.ae