Louie Tonkin has worked wonders in his two years in charge of Bahrain – turning a team who could be labelled remote even by Middle East standards from perennial also-rans into heavyweights.
When he took over in the summer of 2016 the club was coasting along, perhaps happily so, perhaps not. But in the last 24 months the young coach, who has extensive knowledge in the semi-professional ranks back in his native Wales, has seen his team gate crash the UAE party.
It’s a party that boasts an exclusive guest list. Tonkin, 35, has rubbed shoulders with former dual code New Zealand league and England union international star Henry Paul during his tenure at Jebel Ali Dragons.
He will now pit his wits against Wales and British & Irish Lions icon Mike Phillips at Dragons this year – not to mention former Emerging Springboks fly-half Jacques Benade, in charge at Dubai Exiles, as well as Mike McFarlane at fellow Gulf rugby giants Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
But Bahrain well and truly broke into that elite group last season – with the major honours in UAE and Gulf rugby shared between these four sides.
Bahrain have put in the hard yards in the last two years and they will have to go the extra mile once again this season if they are to succeed, thanks to a tweak in the UAE rugby fixtures calendar.
Added competition means the teams in the West Asia Premiership will play each other three times over the course of 2018/19 – with Bahrain travelling to each opponent twice, while also playing each team once at home.
Ultimately five of their Premiership games will be at home, with 10 away. But Tonkin sees the bigger picture. “Amidst all the chaos of the restructure this summer, I’m delighted we’re finally going to be playing a game,” he said of this weekend’s big Premiership kick-off – away at Quins.
“There’s still some formalities to organise but the guys in charge have come up with a good fixture list. The season is longer now because we play everyone three times per season, which is great. It’s harder but that’s what we want.
“We want to play more games and we want the game to grow. The only way it’s going to happen is to play more games so we’re happy with that.
“It’s a lot harder for us as it means we have to go to the three big teams – Quins, Dragons, Exiles – twice and they come to us once. We’ve had the short straw but it is what it is and we’re looking forward to the weekend and getting it all started.”
Bahrain are no strangers to doing things the hard way – they went nearly three months without a Premiership home fixture from September to December last season.
They also agreed to travel to Abu Dhabi and Sri Lanka in last year’s Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League pre-season tournament.
Unlike this year where each side had a home game, Bahrain decided to play both games away in order to keep the competition alive – Harlequins might have been forced to pull out had they travelled amid financial concerns away from the field.
And despite facing the prospect of two thirds of this season’s Premiership games being away from their stronghold, Tonkin is relishing the opportunity ahead, the chance to prove themselves.
“Our hopes and aims are pretty straightforward and I imagine it would be the same as everyone, they want to achieve success,” said the former Pontypool and Carmarthen Quins coach.
“For us it’s about backing up what we did last season. We didn’t pull off the league victory, but we were happy with the cup. There was a lot of chat about the play-offs and Quins and Exiles bringing weaker sides over to us so we just want to back our performances up and establish ourselves as one of the main sides in the Gulf, and achieve silverware at the end.
“It’s a bit of a cliché but we want to take it one game at a time. We have four games straight up now, three (of the opening five) away, at Quins, Exiles and Dragons, so we’ve got to really focus on those and pick up some results to put us in a good position at the start of the season.”
After sacrificing their home game in the Champions League a year ago, Bahrain were rewarded with the title this summer, beating Quins at home 27-21 a week ago to add the title to their West Asia Cup triumph last term – a first piece of silverware in eight seasons.
“We managed to give 27 players a good hit-out against Quins and Kandy in the Champions League and we feel like the squad are in a decent place ahead of the weekend,” added Tonkin.
“We go to Abu Dhabi in a rerun of last weekend, both teams have had a look at each other so I’m sure there’ll be some changes. We can’t wait to get out there and make our first trip to the UAE.”
Like most sides, Tonkin has been busy off the field this summer in a bid to keep the club improving – something that has been a trend since he took charge two summers ago.
But while recruitment has been heavy in recent summers, this year it has been about adding quality to the foundations that have been built in those two years.
“We kept 25/26 of the boys who’ve been with us the last two seasons so we’ve got that continuity, and that’s the key, while adding in the new boys and giving us added improvement,” said Tonkin. “We’re in a really healthy place.”
The former Cardiff University coach has dipped into the market back home in a bid to strengthen, with several Bahrain stalwarts having departed.
“We managed to retain the majority of the squad but we did have some big exits unfortunately,” he added.
“We lost a few boys to semi-pro contracts in Hong Kong. A few boys who’ve been around here a long time have left or retired too. Ollie Luke and Toby Borrow went back to the UK, Rich Wilkinson, who played for Bahrain for 10 years or more, has called it a day.
“We had to recruit a little bit and we managed to get some Cardiff Uni graduates again which is amazing. I think the squad’s in a good place.
“We have to manage the squad well because we don’t have an established second team like most of the other clubs, so we’re at a bit of a disadvantage there, but we’ll do our best and focus on Quins this weekend.”
After nearly ending their debut campaign in Middle East rugby with a trophy, Dubai Eagles cannot wait to take flight for the 2018/19 season this weekend.
Eagles grew into their fledgling campaign and although there were major learning curves and disappointments, there were also a few standout moments.
A maiden victory in just their third game – a 17-11 triumph over Abu Dhabi Saracens – in September was a great moment, as was their appearance in the West Asia Trophy final, with the Eagles going down to a narrow 31-22 defeat to Dubai Hurricanes.
Canes are the opponents on Friday as the West Asia Premiership campaign kicks-off, and after a heavy recruitment drive this summer, the second-year club are excited to build on their foundations.
“We’re looking forward to the weekend, it’s going to be a cracking game,” said fly-half and director of rugby Sean Carey.
“Our last game last season was against Hurricanes and it’s the first game this season so it’ll be good to see how much we’ve progressed over the summer.
“They’ve had a few new boys in over the summer and so have we, so hopefully it should be another cracking game along the same lines as the final in March. Hopefully we can push them as close as we did then.”
Arguably the headline arrival for the Dubai Sports City-based club, at least in terms of domestic transfers, is Isaac Porter, the Number 8 who excelled with Sharjah in their 2015/16 UAE Conference triumph.
He has been joined by a few old Wanderers teammates in light of the club’s decision last week to withdraw from the 2018/19 season.
“We’ve got a few new boys in, Isaac as well as a few more from Sharjah since they folded, which are great additions,” added UAE international Carey.
“A few Beaver Nomads players too who are looking quite good. A lot of Irish boys, Stephen Murphy has come over, Olly Johnson who has played for Hurricanes in the past and represented England rugby league’s second team, he’s back after taking a few years out and is a good addition to the back line.
“Harrison Astley, a UAE U19 international, at full-back, is a very exciting talent. We’ve got Jamie Frost too, who has played for Doha in the past and back in England attended Sedbergh, so has a good background.
“We’re a lot stronger this year but so is everyone else so we’re cautious. We know a lot is expected of us after the end to the season. Every single game is tough but we’re looking forward to it.
“We’ve been training hard over the summer. We had a long pre-season and we’re fit and ready to go. We had a training match against the Dragons last week which was a good crack. We just want to get on the field.”
Mike McFarlane is facing the biggest challenge of his four-year tenure in charge of Abu Dhabi Harlequins, but neither coach nor his players are backing down.
The task at hand for Quins is stark, trying to remain competitive or even relevant amid a raft of departures and financial instability over the course of the last 12 months.
Lynchpin Ben Bolger was lost to enforced retirement on the eve of the 2017/19 season, while star players Willie Umu, Brian Geraghty and Patrick Jenkinson departed for pastures new.
Quins suffered but were still fighting on all fronts for silverware last season – thanks in part to their tremendous club culture and “one club” ethos instilled by McFarlane since he took on the reins from Jeremy Manning in the summer of 2015.
But more goodbyes and retirements over the course of the summer have rocked Quins further, and their famed resolve will be severely tested in 2018/19.
“We know each game will be a big battle and we will take each one as they come, planning carefully and going through our meticulous processes to give the players the best chance of performing on the day,” said McFarlane.
This summer has seen long-time club captain Phil Abraham hang up his boots as well as UAE stalwart Phil Brady.
Pieter Kilian, Alfred Ries, Tom Brown, Gerrit Visser, Jona Marshall and Joe Teasdale are also among the departures from Zayed Sports City.
But fears that Quins may completely fall away from any discussion involving silverware were allayed in recent weeks as they thrashed Sri Lankan champions Kandy 57-7 in the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League encounter in early September.
They lost in the showdown with Bahrain last weekend, although the meagre six-point gap in the scoreline suggests Quins will still be there or thereabouts this season.
First up for Quins is a repeat of last week’s contest with Bahrain as they welcome the West Asia Cup winners to the UAE capital on Friday for the West Asia Premiership opener.
Louie Tonkin’s side won 27-21 in Saar a week ago, a result which denied Quins a third Champions League title in a row.
“Bahrain, as they did last week, will provide a stern test. However, I expect to see the players display progress based on factors we took away from last week as a learning curve,” added McFarlane.
“It’s going to be an incredibly competitive league as ever, there’s no doubt about that.
“We are still looking to integrate new systems and structures and I’m sure it will take a further few games to utilise and refine them.
“The players have been fully committed and training hard and that’s all I can ask of them with a great buzz around the squad demonstrating once again the healthy culture we look to breed.”