Mike McFarlane expects a “ding dong” battle between two of the four heavyweight sides in Gulf rugby as Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Bahrain clash for the right to claim the first trophy of the new season.
McFarlane takes his Quins side to Bahrain on Friday with the winner set to lift the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title – the UAE side are looking to make it a three-peat having lifted the title the last two years.
For home side Bahrain, they will look to add the title to their West Asia Cup triumph from a fine 2017/18 season – a trophy which brought them their first piece of silverware in eight years.
Both sides have beaten Sri Lankan champions Kandy in the first two games of a tournament that has become the traditional curtain-raiser to the Gulf rugby season in recent years – won for the first time by Doha in 2015 and by Quins in 2016 and 2017.
Louie Tonkin’s side won 31-20 in Sri Lanka two weeks ago before Quins – with rumours persisting they could struggle in 2018/19 – ran riot in Abu Dhabi last weekend, crushing Kandy 57-7.
McFarlane and his side will be buoyed by that, but will still head west as slight underdogs for Friday’s showdown.
“I was delighted with the performance last week given the overhaul in playing structure and systems for the season ahead,” said McFarlane, who signed a year’s contract extension earlier this summer to remain in charge of Quins for another 12 months – his future beyond that is unknown.
“This weekend is a huge step up against an excellent, well coached squad who have been together a few years now and are building on great foundations.
“This early in the season I expect it to be a ding dong battle as ever and a great opportunity to get more minutes under our belts in preparation for the league opener next week.
“We have a few injuries and availabilities unfortunately from last weekend, however, we’ve got a squad who have bought into the values, ethos and culture of the club and looking forward to performing.”
After rampaging to the quintuple in 2016/17, Quins were well matched last term – with Jebel Ali Dragons lifting the coveted West Asia Premiership title.
Dubai Exiles also returned to prominence to win the Dubai Sevens and UAE Premiership double, with Bahrain winning the other major trophy on offer, the West Asia Cup.
Tonkin is keen to add more silverware to the Bahrain trophy cabinet, but is more concerned with preparing his players for the following week’s Premiership opener – which will be against Quins in Abu Dhabi.
“There’s a trophy on the line but it’s more about the performance and the win, building winning momentum before the league starts next week,” said the Welshman.
“We obviously want to win the game and it’ll be great if we can get some silverware early on. But our focus is on the West Asia Premiership which starts in a week’s time. We want to win and we’re looking forward to hosting Quins in our first game of the season.
“Obviously it’s a different dynamic for both of us as we play each other in the first round of the Premiership a week later so it’s pretty unique and exciting.
“It gives us both the opportunity to look at each other before the first game. Both squads are focused on this weekend though and getting a result and making a good start.”
He is wary of the threat the travelling Quins pose to his side. “We can’t wait,” he added.
“We didn’t look into their game too much, we just reviewed our own game and going forward. We know it’s going to be a very difficult challenge to what we faced in Kandy, we know it’s going to be a more physical encounter.
“There’s going to be some big, big runners coming at us.”