The Jebel Ali Dragons, in their 20th year, have enjoyed their most successful year to date.
Previously seen as the bridesmaids of UAE rugby, reaching finals and coming up short, the boys from Jebel Ali have now won their last two 15s finals in the UAE Premiership and the ARFU West Asian Cup, cementing their status as the top dogs in Emirati rugby.
After being losing finalists in the Premiership for three years years running, the Dragons have become a formidable team when it comes to one-and-done finals.
Outgoing coach Shane Thornton believes it is down to a new culture in the team while captain Paul Hart wasn’t surprised to see the team collect silverware this year.
“The whole year has been good, getting a clean sweep. That’s what it is all about, winning titles,” said Thornton. “We do perform in the big games. I’m stepping down from coaching the Dragons this year and hopefully next year we’ll carry on the success.
“I think it’s the culture that we’ve brought in, and the players. At the moment we play as a whole club through our As and Bs, we work on small things, we lost a few games but in the finals we really dug deep.”
Hart was a key player in the Dragons’ 29-20 win in the ARFU West Asian Cup final on Friday at Zayed Sports City, although he was part of the overall indiscipline that saw the Dragons lose four players to yellow cards at various stages of the game.
A brooding captain that leads with his heart on his sleeve, Hart believes that the preparation the Dragons put in before the season meant he had nothing but confidence when the big games came along.
While the Dragons have lagged behind the Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the league standings in the UAE Premiership and the Gulf Top Six, they have won the games that mattered most.
“Without wanting to sound over confident, when we started recruiting, got the leadership and management in before the start of the season, [winning silverware] is exactly how I foresaw the season,” said Hart.
“We’ve spoken a lot about it and the plan was to win everything, I honestly thought we could because of the boys we have, because of the structure and the recruiting.
“It was all about winning the big games, I know that sounds like sour grapes because we lost to these boys in the league, then we lost the first game in the UAE Premiership but ultimately no one remembers those games and it’s all about the finals.
"Even though the result went against us the last time we played [the Harlequins] four weeks ago, I fully expected to win.
“That’s not putting the other guys down or arrogance, it’s just belief in what we could do. We knew that if we played our game, we were just confident. It turned out exactly as planned. The strength in depth of our team is brilliant, our bench came on and made a massive effort. We were focused on winning and it came to fruition.”
Friday’s win was a fitting end to Thornton’s reign with the Dragons with the coach taking Jebel Ali to the summit of regional rugby. A replacement has yet to be lined up, although Hart did say there are some big names in the queue.
“That’s been known about for two or three months, there are a couple of well known people in the area in the pipeline,” said Hart. “We did it for the club. [Thornton] has reached the peak of his coaching performance in his last season. He’ll be missed."