Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 September 2019

West Asia Premiership final: Dubai Exiles hope to feed off crowd against Bahrain

If the final standings in the regular league season are a guide, then Exiles’ trip to Saar for the finale of the region’s premier XVs competition will be a daunting one

Dubai Exiles, in black, during a West Asia Premiership match against Dubai Hurricanes in November. Satish Kumar for The National
Dubai Exiles, in black, during a West Asia Premiership match against Dubai Hurricanes in November. Satish Kumar for The National

DuRandt Gerber, the Dubai Exiles captain, is hoping the buzz of playing front of the most atmospheric crowd in club rugby in the Middle East will help his side bridge the gap against Bahrain in the West Asia Premiership final.

If the final standings in the regular league season are a guide, then Exiles’ trip to Saar for the finale of the region’s premier XVs competition will be a daunting one.

Bahrain lost just one match in the league all season, winning the other 14, and taking 12 bonus points in the process.

Exiles did inflict that lone loss against their hosts, back in October, but struggled for consistency otherwise. They finished third in the table, 26 points behind leaders Bahrain, having won eight and lost seven matches across the campaign.

However, the away side’s prospects have been enhanced in recent weeks by the return to fitness of a variety of stars of their own trophy successes of recent seasons.

Bahrain have the most vociferous home support anywhere in Arabian Gulf rugby, but Gerber says it helps inspire the visiting players, too.

“The stand is really close to the field, and it is really cool to have all the people so close to the pitch,” Gerber, the Exiles fly-half, said.

“There were a thousand or more people at the final last year [when Bahrain beat Exiles to win the West Asia Cup], and it brings out a buzz in the players on the pitch as well.

“We have a few boys back, although some still have niggles. Rugby players are never 100 per cent, but hopefully they are as close to ready as can be.”

Jacques Benade, the Exiles coach, said Bahrain are “as close to a semi-pro side as we will get here in the Gulf”, but is confident his side will be able to compete.

“We are very positive,” Benade said. “It is just nice to be there, to go out in the final, and to represent UAE in a Gulf final.

“There is nothing better than winning there – but It doesn’t happen often. If it does, it is such a great feeling.

“It is the reason people want to go there: that crowd. People come out to support, and you can just see they love the rugby played there.

“The atmosphere and the noise is just brilliant. We really enjoy it. If you take the Dubai Sevens away, this fixture is the closest experience the boys get to playing on a big day.”

Louie Tonkin, the Bahrain coach who has done so much to transform the club’s fortunes over the past three seasons, insists the Exiles will pose a greater threat than their league record suggests.

“We’re delighted to have finished top of the league, but it doesn’t mean a huge amount at this stage,” Tonkin said.

“Yes, it might suggest we were the dominant force in that league campaign. But we know Exiles were mortified with their injury concerns throughout the campaign.

“We know they are back to full strength now and have some fantastic players. They are a real threat, and we are undoubtedly preparing for this to be our hardest game of the season. It is definitely going to be that.

“That is what you want in a final: the two best teams at full strength, going hammer and tong against each other to give a good measure of where you both are.”

Although Bahrain won the final match of cross-border competition last season – that cup final against Exiles - Jebel Ali Dragons were West Asia champions on account of finishing first in the league table.

An alteration to the competition’s rules means the winner of the final will now be the Premiership champions.

“For us, it is about trying to establish ourselves as champions of West Asia, and back up what we did last year,” Tonkin said.

“That final was a fantastic night for us as a club, but everyone knows Exiles weren’t full-strength that day. It will be a different story this year, and it’s something we are really looking forward to.

“We have prepared well, managed the squad well, and full credit to our medical team. We have a few players that have missed the last three or four rounds of the regular season, but a lot of them are back fit and healthy and raring to go.

“The guys are all really excited, and the club are excited to host this event again. Hopefully it will be a fantastic showpiece for the West Asia Premiership.

“We haven’t won anything yet. It will all be on the 80 minutes on Friday, and hopefully we will come out on the right side of it.”

Updated: March 7, 2019 09:12 AM

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