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CELEBRATIONS are continuing this week after Bahrain were crowned champions of West Asia after an extraordinary finish to the Premiership’s grand final against Dubai Exiles in Saar.
Playing in front of the famed ‘Red Wall’, the home side held on for a 23-21 victory on Friday evening despite a stunning late fightback from the Exiles.
Rugby club chairman, Mike Cunningham, has followed the team through its trials and tribulations over the past decade, with the team struggling before being revitalised under coach Louie Tonkin’s stunning rebuild.
“It’s been a great season for the team and the rugby club,” he said. “We’ve been so dominant and lost only once in the entire season, when we were ravaged by injuries.
“There’s been a lot of players coming in-and-out of the team, so to keep the spirit and momentum going has been amazing.”
Bahrain had been 20-6 up early in the second half after two tries from centre Jack Phillips and faultless kicking by Ross Preedy.
Exiles crossed for the first time with 15 minutes left with a pushover try, but the hosts appeared to have settled the tie when Leon Mauer kicked a penalty immediately after, to give Bahrain a 23-13 advantage.
The tourists refused to concede defeat, though. DuRandt Gerber, their captain, struck a penalty, and Exiles forged on, even when time had elapsed.
After their forwards pounded away at Bahrain’s try line, deft passes from Gerber and Ed Armitage provided space for Michael Stubbs, the Exiles winger, to speed over in the right-hand corner.
Stubbs was hit late in the act of scoring the try. A melee ensued, after which Bahrain lost a man to a red card. Perhaps of greater significance, though, the foul play ensured Gerber had two shots at goal.
The first – the conversion – would have levelled the scores, and forced extra-time, pending the outcome of the penalty kick which followed because of the late hit.
Gerber dragged the touchline conversion wide of the left-hand post, but still had a chance to win it for the away side, with the penalty from halfway.
That had been exactly how the fly-half had opened the Exiles’ account in the final, with a first-half penalty from halfway.
He struck the final kick of the West Asia Premiership season sweetly, too, and the Exiles players celebrated wildly what they thought had been the final piece of a remarkable comeback.
It was not to be, though, as, following a consultation between the three match officials, the ball was ruled to have passed just under the crossbar.
Given they had finished the regular league season comfortably ahead of the field – and 26 points clear of their final opponents, who finished third in the table – Bahrain can be considered more than deserving champions.
Cunningham added: “It’s fitting that the final was hard-fought and dramatic. The thousands who were there will remember it forever; the stand was full and a massive crowd came to cheer on their heroes.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to lose a few players this summer, and we need to rebuild again and wipe the slate clean to go again next year with fresh motivation. We’ve won everything possible this year, but the challenge is to now go and do it again.
“From a club perspective, it shows you how much the game has grown. Success really has trickled down through the whole club. The ground is filled for every home game with people coming and supporting us, with a big party atmosphere. The celebrations continue.
“On the sporting side of things, more children are coming down to get involved in the sport and the Golden Oldies have 30 people just for training sessions! Rugby fever truly has gripped Bahrain and long may it continue!”