Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Jebel Ali Dragons set for UAE Premiership title showdown in a period of changing times
The two finalists for Friday's encounter in Dubai have survived changing coaches during the season
Rugby in West Asia has always had to cope with transience and impermanence. The two sides that will meet in the final game of the 2018-19 season personify that.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Jebel Ali Dragons will each be vying for the UAE Premiership title with different coaches to those who were in charge as recently as halfway through the season.
In Abu Dhabi’s case, they have had to deal with the unexpected departure in January of Mike McFarlane, the highly-successful coach who oversaw them winning every trophy on offer in domestic rugby two seasons ago.
At around the same time, surely the most high-profile figure ever to have held any sort of office in the game in this part of the world, the Wales great Mike Phillips, stepped away from his role as coach of Dragons.
Harlequins, who finished the regular season top of the points table and 19 points clear of Dragons, are making a joke of the idea of flux within the domestic game.
They will be without their influential kicker and captain Luke Stevenson, as he has had to travel to Europe. They will be led instead by prop Chris Jones-Griffiths, the most capped UAE international, who has spent the past two seasons attempting to retire from the game, only to keep answering the regular calls for help from his club.
Even their coach, Alistair Thompson, attempted to step away from the game – again – last summer, only to return to fill the breach when McFarlane left.
“These guys are brilliant to work with,” Thompson, a former Harlequins and UAE captain, said.
“Mike McFarlane did a brilliant job. He was at the helm, and I slipped away this year, but I didn’t want to see the boys without a coach.
“I came back in when Mike had to depart, and it has been great. The competitive juices do flow, and mentally I would still love to play, but physically my body can’t take it.
“It is a young man’s game out here now. There are big physical players out there that have good skills. It is a tough competition.”
Coincidentally, Thompson once played in the same team as his opposite number this Friday, Dragons coach Colin Philips, when both were playing back in their native Scotland.
While Thompson has been a long-term resident of the UAE, Philips arrived last October. Having assisted with coaching in a back-up role soon after he arrived, he stepped up to take the reins of the Dragons first XV when his near-namesake Phillips’ other commitments became too much for him to carry on as coach.
“It’s been a greater role than I planned initially, but it’s been an easy transition as the players just get on with it, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” Philips said.
“I enjoyed working alongside Mike, he has the sort of rugby experience I will never get. Hopefully as a club we can keep him involved going forward, because you can’t buy that sort of experience.”
For their part, Dragons will also be without a number of key figures for the final. Ross Samson, who captained them to the West Asia title last season, suffered a leg injury in the semi-final win over Dubai Exiles, while Jonny Macdonald, who shelved his own retirement midway through this season, also misses out.
Matt Henry, the back-rower, should be fit to start despite injuring his hand in the 28-24 win over Exiles.
“The semi-final was a brutal affair,” Philips said. “It is the end of a long season. We had a short, sharp training session on Wednesday after analysis on Monday night, so the boys are pretty fresh.
“We are disappointed not to have Ross. He has put in a massive shift on and off the pitch. But the guys are all pretty motivated and looking forward to an important game of rugby.”
Updated: March 28, 2019 01:58 PM