x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Jebel Ali Dragons grab last bragging rights over Abu Dhabi Harlequins

The Jebel Ali Dragons met the Abu Dhabi Harlequins head on and were able to better handle 'the momentum swings' than their rivals to win the West Asia final. Paul Radley reports.

The Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, squared off in the West Asia Cup final with the Dragons grabbing final bragging rights and the UAE rugby triple crown with their third piece of silverware this season.
The Jebel Ali Dragons, in blue, squared off in the West Asia Cup final with the Dragons grabbing final bragging rights and the UAE rugby triple crown with their third piece of silverware this season.

ABU DHABI // This time last year, the Jebel Ali Dragons were rightly considered to be the perennial bridesmaids of rugby in this region.

So hapless were they when the pressure was on, they had a habit of dropping the bouquet over the tryline, and they might as well have been at the wrong venue anyway.

Pressure was not their friend.

What a difference 12 months make. A club celebrating its anniversary after 20 years of existence are going to need a new trophy cabinet, such has been their swag of silver this season.

They completed a triple crown of major titles on Friday night by becoming the top side in West Asia, doing it the hard way on the home patch of their greatest rivals.

It was a fitting send off for Shane Thornton, their head coach, who will step down having overseen wins in the UAE Premiership, the Dubai Sevens and the West Asia play-off in his final season in charge.

"What we have shown this year is that we do perform in finals and we do win them," said Thornton, who is likely to return to the playing ranks as a sevens specialist next season.

"It is down to the culture we have brought in, but also down to the players.

"We play as a whole club. I'm stoked for the guys."

Just as was the case at the culmination of the UAE Premiership season before Christmas, this final between the two sides had one overriding spirit settling it.

To say Sean Crombie's influence on the Dragons has been immense in his first season since moving to Dubai from the UK would be underestimating his worth.

The former Scotland sevens hooker scored two tries at Zayed Sports City to start a compelling fightback after the away side had looked lost at 15-3 down and with two players in the sin bin.

The travelling side accrued four yellow cards in all.

The fact that they were short-handed for half the game mattered little, though, with Crombie in this mood.

The Scotsman's importance does not stop at major finals. He scored a hat-trick in Bahrain on the last regular-season match the Dragons played.

Friday's haul was the fourth time the fitness instructor-come-rugby-player has scored two in a game, and he has failed to cross the whitewash in a game just once in 2013.

If the Dragons ever settle on whether he is best at hooker or in the back row, he could turn out to be a half-decent player.

"This was a great effort by everyone at the Dragons, but Sean warrants a special mention because his influence has been massive since he joined our club," said Paul Hart, the Dragons captain.

"His performances on the field have obviously been amazing, but off it he acts as a mentor to the lads and even trains some of us guys, too."

This result might not exactly reverberate around the world but it was being monitored beyond the West Asia region.

Tim Fletcher, who has been one of the mainstays of this side for years, missed the final after booking his belated honeymoon a week earlier than was the ideal.

Yet he was keeping regularly updated throughout the game, despite the fact it kicked off at 6am local time for him in San Francisco.

By the end of it, the majority of the home contingent probably wished they were half the world away, too.

Over the course of the 2012-13 season, the Harlequins lost two out of 16 matches in the 15-a-side format.

And yet they have managed to lose out in three finals against the Dragons, if you include the Gulf League final of the Dubai Sevens in front of 45,000 people in December.

"I'm gutted for the boys," said Chris Davies, the director of rugby, who said his captain, Billy Graham, had played the second half of the final with a broken hand.

"In terms of the amount of work they have put in and the time they have spent training, they have sacrificed a lot.

"The Dragons reacted to the momentum swings better than we did. The guys did not give up at any stage.

"I personally feel we are a very good side.

"On paper we are second-best in West Asia, but we will be back to fight another day."

 

pradley@thenational.ae

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