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.”
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