There were 54 points between the teams the last time they met in December but Bahrain coach Louie Tonkin is under no illusion Jebel Ali Dragons present a stern test for his side in Friday’s West Asia Cup semi-final.
Tonkin’s side brushed Dragons aside 68-14 in Saar on December 14 – part of a mammoth haul of 577 points scored in 15 games on their way to topping the West Asia Premiership standings in a dominant campaign.
The west Asia side finished the regular season 13 points clear of second-placed Abu Dhabi Harlequins, having lost just once in those 15 games. The defending champions, meanwhile, have struggled, losing eight times and winning only seven games. They scraped into the end of season semi-finals via a huge 72-24 win over rock bottom Dubai Eagles at the end of February and were left sweating on back-to-back defeats for Dubai Hurricanes.
Canes went down narrowly to Quins – losing only 35-34 on February 15 – while suffering a close 24-10 defeat in Bahrain a week later. It meant Dragons finished six points ahead to clamber into the semi-finals.
But Tonkin is anticipating a tight and tense battle this weekend. “It’s a semi and we won the right to host a home semi but our focus is on 80 minutes on Friday,” said the Welshman, whose side are looking to add the league triumph to the overall West Asia Cup crown and retain last year’s title – their maiden trophy in eight years.
“We know Dragons have some great players and great leadership in Ross Samson and Jonny MacDonald so we know it’s going to be a completely different fixture than we had against Dragons in December when we won convincingly.
“We’re ready for a tight contest and we’re looking forward to a big day at Bahrain Rugby Club.”
Despite already topping the standings in the regular season, Tonkin knows the overall Cup victory is the trophy all the sides are after.
He added: “We’re really looking forward to the fixture. We’ve been working towards this all year. With the new format of the league, although we finished top of the league in the regular season, we’re very aware this is the main trophy.
“We managed the squad a little last week against Canes to ensure we had as close to a fully fit squad as possible this weekend and we’re looking forward to hosting Dragons on Friday.
“We’ve had a few injuries the last six weeks coming back to health at the right time, which is great. They’re not quite ready to break into the starting XV just yet but they are available for selection and it strengthens our case.”
In Friday’s other semi-final, league runners-up Quins host Dubai Exiles.
Ireland’s bosses have hailed the significant coup of retaining “world-class” centre Robbie Henshaw on a new three-year contract.
Henshaw has signed new terms to remain in Ireland with Leinster until 2022, leaving Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) performance director David Nucifora purring.
British and Irish Lions centre Henshaw has racked up 37 caps since his 2013 Test debut, helping Ireland to the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam.
Leinster flanker Sean O’Brien will join London Irish after the autumn’s World Cup, but Henshaw’s new deal is a reminder of the IRFU’s powers in retaining the bulk of their top stars.
“Robbie has established himself as a leader within this Ireland squad and has delivered consistent world-class performances which have helped to drive the sustained success enjoyed by the national team,” said Nucifora.
“He has a hunger for improvement and in driving the standards of those around him.”
Henshaw missed Ireland’s 22-13 Six Nations win in Scotland due to a dead leg but should be back in contention for Sunday’s trip to Rome to face Italy.
The former Connacht star featured at full-back in Ireland’s 32-20 opening-weekend defeat to England, with head coach Joe Schmidt rotating his backline resources.
Henshaw made his name in the role at provincial level, but had not featured there for Ireland since his 2013 debut.
Ireland’s back three struggled positionally in that England defeat, and Schmidt would have shifted Henshaw back to outside centre had he been fit to face Scotland.
Henshaw’s Test quality in the centres is not in doubt however, and the Athlone-born midfielder was as happy as his employers with his new terms.
“I am delighted to have signed a new three-year contract with the IRFU,” said Henshaw.
“It is an exciting time to be part of Irish Rugby and – having tasted success with both Ireland and Leinster in recent seasons – I am eager to play a role in driving further success at both international and provincial level.”
Andy Farrell has branded following Joe Schmidt as Ireland head coach the biggest challenge of his career.
Former dual-code England international Farrell will step up from assistant to head coach when current boss Schmidt steps down after the autumn’s World Cup in Japan.
The 43-year-old has worked under Schmidt since 2016 amid Ireland’s rise to second in the world, following four years as England defence coach.
Farrell confirmed Johnny Sexton will be fit for Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations trip to Italy on Sunday, February 24, with Iain Henderson also in the running to feature – before briefly turning attention to life after the 2019 World Cup.
Asked if replacing Schmidt will be his biggest coaching challenge yet, Farrell replied: “Yes, 100 per cent. It’s something I’ve been working towards, something I’m up for and excited about at the same time.
“I’m proud and privileged to be asked to take over after such a brilliant coach like Joe (Schmidt).
“Fortunately enough as well I get a bit of time to keep on learning in the meantime.
“It’s a massive honour to be given the opportunity, because it’s a privilege to be involved with the group of people we’ve got, the players and the staff.
“I feel where we’re going in the future is a bright place as well.”
Schmidt has led Ireland to one Grand Slam, three Six Nations titles, Ireland’s maiden two victories over back-to-back world champions New Zealand and from eighth to second in the World Rugby rankings.
Ireland confirmed Farrell as Schmidt’s replacement when their current boss revealed in November that he would step down at the end of 2019.
Farrell enjoyed a stellar playing career in both league and union, before making his coaching name at Saracens.
The British and Irish Lions coach lost his England job after the 2015 World Cup, when Stuart Lancaster’s side became the competition’s first host nation to be eliminated at the group stages.
Farrell has flourished under Schmidt’s tutelage however, and feels he has progressed enormously in the Ireland set-up.
Asked if he had had any second thoughts over replacing Schmidt, Farrell replied: “Absolutely no doubts whatsoever, it was a very easy decision.
“Of course I have become a better coach under Joe, 100 per cent.
“You’re learning all the time, aren’t you? No matter who you’re working with.
“What you get when you’re in our environment is you get to share ideas and we tend to give quite a lot of feedback to each other.
“You’re learning constantly and it shapes the way you think and learn on the run.”
Farrell’s former England boss Lancaster has been mooted as a candidate to leave Leinster and join Ireland’s backroom staff once Schmidt departs.
But Farrell kept his cards close to his chest when quizzed on the chance of linking back up with former Leeds coach Lancaster.
“There’s planning that has to go on behind the scenes,” said Farrell.
“Honestly I’m unbelievably conscious of making sure nothing gets in the way of the day job.
“Things are petering away, but there’s not too much wrong with the Irish set-up at this moment in time.
“Continuity is a good thing for us, because what we do is working.”
Ireland will move on to face Italy in Rome next Sunday, keen to build on their 22-13 win over Scotland in Edinburgh.
Confirming Sexton’s fitness after a head injury scare, Farrell hailed Ulster lock Henderson’s return ahead of schedule from a finger injury.
“Johnny is fine, he trained fully and he will be ready to go,” said Farrell.
“He is fine, he’s had no symptoms at all, no complaints throughout the week.”
On Henderson, Farrell added: “It’s great to be getting players back; it’s nice to get a boost throughout the Six Nations.
“For fresh guys to come back in with fresh spirits will hopefully give everyone a boost.”