x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Fire in these Jebel Ali Dragons' bellies

Three major factors have contributed to the UAE club side sweeping the board in domestic rugby this season, writes Paul Radley.

Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, are one of the most ubiquitous rugby union teams in the country. Lee Hoagland / The National
Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, are one of the most ubiquitous rugby union teams in the country. Lee Hoagland / The National

When the Jebel Ali Dragons confirmed their status as the pre-eminent rugby club in West Asia by winning in Abu Dhabi on Friday, it embossed a season of triumph that has been a long time coming.

For some years now, the club has been saturated in talent. Yet when the time came to deliver they had developed an unhappy habit of missing the postbox.

After three near misses last season, the 20-year-old club's glory years were beginning to feel sepia tinted.

There are three main reasons why that changed and the Dragons have managed to leapfrog their rivals this time around.

Identity

You know a Dragon when you see one. Usually they are wearing a club issue blue Hawaiian shirt and they are probably on the road to or from Barasti in Dubai.

If it is big match day, they are guaranteed to be making a racket. At the past two Gulf League finals of the Dubai Sevens, their club have swamped the area immediately surrounding the tunnel from where the players run out.

The other 45,000 people singing Neil Diamond numbers have had nothing on their renditions of "I would rather be a Dragon than a Quin," to the tune of She'll be Coming Round the Mountain.

It was no surprise the Dragons supporters owned the hill at Zayed Sports City on Friday. Most of them had made the trip down the coast road on the fun bus hired for the day.

When their side were 15-3 down in the final against the Harlequins, they did their part in raising the players.

There is a reason the Dragons have such a strong identity. Of the Dubai rugby sides, Jebel Ali were the first to find a home to call their own after all clubs were forced to relocate to The Sevens when the old Dubai Exiles ground in Al Awir was bulldozed.

So the floodlights are a little dull, the changing rooms are portable cabins and the grass is not as nice as at The Sevens or Zayed Sports City (although it is not far behind). It is theirs, and that makes it perfect.

Recruitment

The Dubai Hurricanes, who had been the dominant force on the city's rugby scene in recent years, built their golden years on a recruitment policy which usually kicked into gear on a Friday night in Barasti.

"We just go up to the biggest bloke in there and ask him if he plays rugby," Chris Gregory, the highly successful Hurricanes captain, once joked. There was more than a grain of truth in it.

The Dragons have adopted a slightly more scientific method, though, and it reaped immediate benefits this season.

Having a captain as driven for success as Paul Hart helps. Doubly so when his day job is in recruitment.

Last summer, the club's leading players were implored to exhaust their contacts books to see if any talented players they knew in their home countries were considering a fresh start in pastures new.

Hart took an active role in finding employment for a number of new players this season, and the results spoke for themselves on the field.

"The plan was always to win everything and we always thought we could because of the recruitment and the infrastructure of the club," Hart said.

Peaking

Sir David Brailsford and Chris Boardman, two of the masterminds behind Great Britain's dominance of Olympic cycling, have an amused disregard for those who doubt their methods.

Many has been the time when rival nations have questioned the validity of the GB monopoly, given that their cyclists regularly perform poorly in minor competitions.

So humoured were Britain's brains trust by criticism emanating from across the Channel during last summer's London Games, they told their French doubters the wheels they used were rounder than theirs.

Cobblers, of course. Just a ruse to put their rivals off the scent of their real method for reaching excellence – namely tapering their work to peak when it matters most.

After years of doing the complete opposite in UAE rugby, the Dragons managed to get the hang of peaking this season.

While the Harlequins had a perfect record of 14 wins from the league matches for which they took to the field in the XVs format in 2012/13, Dragons were down at 10 won and four lost.

The Quins won the two games they played in regular season matches – yet the Dragons beat them in all three finals played between the two sides.

"It is not sour grapes because we lost those games and Quins won the Gulf Top Six league but ultimately nobody remembers those league games, it is all about finals," Hart said. "We have belief in what we do."

pradley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE