Louie Tonkin claims his Bahrain players restored pride to the jersey with a hugely impressive 2016/17 season, which culminated in defeat to rampant Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the West Asia Cup final on Friday.
Bahrain have lived in neighbours Doha’s shadow for many years, but following an improved showing 12 months ago, stormed into contention for silverware under the stewardship of Welshman Tonkin.
Bahrain finished third in the West Asia Premiership behind Quins and Doha and then beat Alex Natera’s men in Qatar two weeks ago to set up the final clash with Quins.
They pushed Mike McFarlane’s men mightily close at Quins’ Zayed Sports City home on Friday, eventually going down 31-25.
And while his players were left hurting following a bitter end to the campaign, the former Pontypool and Carmarthen Quins coach insists he feels nothing but “massive pride” for his charges.
“Obviously we’re disappointed to lose. You don’t come to the final to lose but I said to the boys, it’s not just about winning and losing, it’s the pride we’ve put back into the jersey this year,” said Tonkin, 34.
“The fact we’re even here is a great achievement and it’s just the start of the journey for us. I told the guys that.
“We were dominant for half an hour and then the last 10 (of the first half) we gave them momentum and they scored, which was a turning point. We showed in patches how good we can be and I just think we needed that for longer periods.
“It’s been the story of the season, exceptional in short periods. And we’ve done that and wiped the floor with teams. There’s been good games and bad games, but that needs to be the standard for longer periods. This is where we want to be now, fighting for these cups.”
And while the pain of defeat will linger, Tonkin is excited by the future for the club – having made a final despite only being in charge of the club for eight months.
“We’re only going to get better,” he added.
It’s the first year of our project. We want to keep that group together and get better. We’ve had a really abnormal season with injuries and the character of the boys has been exceptional.
“To score those two late tries at the end was fantastic. We were three scores down and scored 12 points in the final five minutes. It showed tremendous character and summed up our season. We’ll make that group a lot stronger next season.
“Hopefully next year we can be fighting for home draws. We’ve had two tough final games, away at Doha and at Quins, and we almost made it. But I’m happy for the boys, very proud and it’s just the start of the journey for us.
“I’m disappointed for the guys as they’re hurting but I’ve had a great time here so far, I’m loving it and it’s just the start.”
Mike McFarlane insists his players won’t let their standards drop as Abu Dhabi Harlequins go in search of the quintuple and a perfect season.
Quins lifted a fourth crown of an immense 2016/17 on Friday as they became West Asia Cup champions following a 31-25 victory over battling Bahrain in Abu Dhabi.
And they have the chance to cap a dream campaign when they meet Jebel Ali Dragons with the UAE Premiership title on the line at Dubai Sports City this Friday.
“The boys will not let standards and expectations drop. They set the bar,” McFarlane said after his side completed the quadruple, with the Cup following glory in the West Asia Premiership, Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League.
“Quins have got a massive history and I doubt anyone has won four and certainly not five trophies. A fifth would be great but we need to take a minute to celebrate this.
“Getting a fourth is unprecedented. It’s some effort, given the caliber of teams. It’s not a mickey mouse league, we’re playing some top teams.
“Look at (neighbours Abu Dhabi) Saracens. We beat them by two points. OK the second game was a bigger score but they’ve been taking points off everyone, and they finished bottom. It just shows the standard. So to win four is a great effort.”
In the end the scoreline flattered Bahrain as Louie Tonkin’s visitors scored two tries in the final two minutes to reduce the winning margin to six.
But Quins only led by three with 15 minutes left having been dominated by the visitors in an under par first half – despite the fact they were level at the interval thanks to Luke Stevenson’s try minutes before the break.
But McFarlane said there was never a concern his side could not turn on the style.
He added: “We always set ourselves high standards. I think if any other team had put in that performance they would have thought ‘we’ve done alright here at 10-10’, but we were gutted.
“The boys are honest with themselves and we were all 6 out of 10 and that’s not good enough. I said in the circle only come out if you’re going to be 9 out of 10 by the end of the game, and they all stepped up. They ran themselves into the wall and that’s all you can expect.
“I think there’s been one game this season where I’ve had to give them a kick up the arse. They know themselves and that’s where you get performances like that.
“I knew there was more to come, 100 per cent. We didn’t get out of second gear, I don’t think we were ever under threat really. The defensive work really paid off.
“We were a bit naïve and clumsy at time, chucking away ball, and that’s unlike us, but it was our focus in the second half. We tightened the game up, developed a few more phases and we were a much better team.”
Abu Dhabi Harlequins stand on the verge of history – beat Jebel Ali Dragons in the UAE Premiership final at Dubai Sports City this Friday and they will complete a clean sweep of five major trophies this season.
There are very scant records kept on UAE rugby and trawling through statistics down the years would be an arduous and thankless task, but one thing is abundantly clear.
There has never been a domestic team that has won a quintuple during a campaign.
Quins have already claimed the quadruple after their 31-25 victory over Bahrain on Friday confirmed them as West Asia Cup champions. It completed a West Asia double with the Premiership earned in farcical circumstances in February.
A third straight Dubai Sevens crown was lifted in December with the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League trophy kicking off an unprecedented story of success way back in September.
Whatever happens against Dragons in five days’ time, Quins have already surpassed the achievements of any UAE club, certainly in recent memory.
It’s fitting that the country’s torchbearers in terms of success stand between the Zayed Sports City-based club and history.
Dragons, who play at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence, have been the embodiment of excellence in recent years.
Winning back to back trebles of UAE Premiership, Gulf Top 6 and Dubai Sevens titles in 2012/13 and 2013/14 were hugely impressive feats, and served as the greatest club achievement – until now.
The fact Quins stand on the precipice of such splendor is even more impressive when the growth of professionalism among the UAE’s elite clubs and standard of today’s players is brought into consideration.
The recruitment process deployed by teams, the luring of sponsors like Etihad Airways and Porsche, ties established with the likes of Saracens and Harlequins in the UK and Super Rugby’s Hurricanes, and the root and branch development of youth academies at many clubs, means the game is creeping ever closer to becoming professional.
The calibre of players featuring in the UAE and West Asia Premiership is such that the UAE national team is beginning to emerge as a force in Asia rugby, with former dual code star Apollo Perelini obtained as rugby performance manager and now able to pick his national team squads exclusively from the top league.
Former New Zealand rugby league and England union international Henry Paul came on board as Dragons’ head coach last summer, while former Emerging Springbok Jacques Benade led Dubai Exiles to the West Asia and UAE Premiership double in his first season in 2015/16.
Abu Dhabi Saracens, West Asia champions two seasons ago, finished bottom this season, caught in a quagmire as others around them embraced the need to improve or risk being left behind.
Teams are better and more talented than ever, so the fact Quins are one win away from a total monopoly on available silverware this term should serve as an indicator for how impressively they have performed.
Admittedly, the Western Clubs Champions League is a relatively meaningless competition played during pre-season between just three teams.
And it cannot be ignored that Quins’ West Asia Premiership crown is slightly tainted by the confusion caused by the lack of clarity and promotion of the 2016/17 league’s format by competition organisers.
But take nothing away from Mike McFarlane and his men. No team has ever captured four trophies in a season – and if that becomes five this Friday, it will be truly special.