'One Club Ethos' key to Abu Dhabi Harlequins success in the face of adversity
Coach-captain combination of Chris Jones-Griffiths and Alistair Thompson credit predecessor Mike McFarlane for laying foundation of teamwork and camaraderie at capital club after regaining UAE Premiership title despite challenges
Abu Dhabi Harlequins beat Jebel Ali Dragons to win the UAE Premiership title this season. Pawan Singh / The National
ROLL OF HONOUR: WHO WON WHAT IN 2018/19?
West Asia Premiership: Winners – Bahrain; Runners-up – Dubai Exiles
UAE Premiership: Winners – Abu Dhabi Harlequins; Runners-up – Jebel Ali Dragons
Dubai Rugby Sevens: Winners – Dubai Hurricanes; Runners-up – Abu Dhabi Harlequins
UAE Conference: Winners – Dubai Tigers; Runners-up – Al Ain Amblers
When Abu Dhabi Harlequins were last the champions of UAE, two seasons ago, they were a well-oiled machine that swept all before them, on their way to five titles in all across the campaign.
They returned to the winners’ podium on Friday when they beat Jebel Ali Dragons 37-27 at The Sevens in the UAE Premiership final. The lead up to it, though, could hardly have been more fraught.
Players came and went even before the season started. That trend continued throughout. And, then, in January, the biggest blow of all came in the form of the unexpected departure of Mike McFarlane, the coach who drove them through their years of success.
The fact Luke Stevenson, the captain, missed the most important game of the campaign on account it clashing with a prior engagement abroad from which he was unable to excuse himself just seemed to typify the malaise.
And yet, the more things have changed, the more they stayed the same. Harlequins lost just one match all season on their way to the domestic title.
And the coach-captain combination that oversaw it have had such a long association with the club, they predate it being known as the Harlequins.
When Chris Jones-Griffiths and Alistair Thompson were teammates in winning the 2008 Gulf Cup title in Al Ain, it was Abu Dhabi Bats that was subsequently inscribed on the trophy.
Both have retired more than once in the time since. And yet, when Harlequins – the name was changed because of an association penned with the London club of the same name a decade ago – won on Friday, Jones-Griffiths was captain, and Thompson coach.
Thompson, who has won titles coaching Harlequins either side of a short stint doing the same with cross-city rivals Saracens, paid tribute to the players for the way they coped with a season of change.
“It demonstrates the resilience the boys have shown,” said Thompson, who filled the breach when McFarlane left at the turn of the year.
“They genuinely enjoy spending time together, and that makes a difference. You could see on our bus journey home after the game, it was not just the fact the boys were celebrating a trophy, they just like to spend time with each other and have fun together.
“So, when games get tough, they are willing to dig deep for each other. There is a lot of pride in the jersey.”
Chris Jones-Griffiths has been a successful player and coach at Abu Dhabi Harlequins. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Jones-Griffiths said the club were still reaping the success of the foundations McFarlane set.
“All the credit should go to Mike,” Jones-Griffiths said. “He had this ‘One Club’ ethos that he instilled in everybody.
"From the first team, down to the third team, through to the vets, and the ladies side, we play in a Quins style.
“We play for each other, we play for the shirt, and there are no prima donnas. We pull together, and as a first team, we know that whoever steps in, they will do a job, and we have 100 per cent confidence.”
Although Harlequins merited their title, having lost just one match across the league season, they were pushed all the way by Dragons in the final.
Ian Overton, Niko Volavola, Matt Henry and Matt Richards scored tries, and they would have been level on 30-30 with just minutes remaining had Angus Maxfield’s penalty not agonisingly stayed out after hitting the inside of a post.
Harlequins were champions, though, on the back of two tries for Alfred Ries, plus one apiece for Barry Dwyer, Moeneeb Galant, Ashbey Williams and Jon Stannard.
Alistair Thompson, right, has won titles coaching Harlequins either side of a short stint doing the same with Saracens. Delores Johnson / The National
The sides might be joined in the top tier next season by Dubai Tigers. They beat Al Ain Amblers 37-21 in the Conference final.
It was their second successive win in that competition, and Aaron Persico, the Tigers coach, said his side are likely to accept a place in the Premiership now.
“I think it is the right time to move up,” Persico said. “It will be a different challenge for the club.
“The main focus is the mini and youth. We have got the biggest numbers in Dubai now, and we are just trying to develop every year.
“For the senior team, it has been two years now. We have enjoyed this division, but I think for us to challenge ourselves we need to go up next year to the Premiership.”
Updated: March 30, 2019 06:28 PM