Louie Tonkin can be mightily proud of his first season at the helm of Bahrain. His team cast aside years of mediocrity by surging to prominence in 2016/17 – finishing third in the West Asia Premiership and pushing Abu Dhabi Harlequins mightily close in the West Asia Cup final.
But Tonkin admitted he learned some harsh lessons over the course of his debut campaign in the desert. And, rather than sit and admire the progress he has orchestrated in the Kingdom, he is determined for Bahrain to push on further and challenge Quins, the reigning kings of Gulf rugby, next term.
Tonkin has returned to Bahrain after a few weeks’ holiday back home in his native Wales, and the 34-year-old has delved into his Welsh contacts book for much of his summer recruitment.
Centre Iwan Phillips, fly-half Ross Preedy, centre/wing Graham Bishop, flanker Rhys Fitzgerald and second row Jonathan Kenny have either played for Tonkin before in previous roles as Cardiff University or Pontypool head coach, or have top division Welsh Premiership experience.
Back rower Elliot Beehan and three other recruits from last summer who all suffered season-ending injuries have returned to fitness, while Greg Heath, Deina Morete and Davis Tui have re-signed with the club.
Apart from strengthening his squad over the summer, Tonkin revealed one of the key things he took from last season was getting to grips with players’ employment opportunities once they arrive in the Middle East.
“We’ve recruited a few, but we learned some key lessons last year in terms of the type of players we need to recruit in Bahrain,” admitted Tonkin.
“I came in from the cold and didn’t know the lay of the land, with things like employment opportunities. So we’ve based recruitment around that. Graduates who are highly educated rugby players.
“We’ve managed to build really, really good relationships with fantastic employers and all the guys coming out are walking into great opportunities, which is really positive, and an easy sell from our perspective too.
“All but one of the guys I’ve worked with before. Three are guys who were in my Cardiff University team two years ago and have all played with semi-professional teams in Wales.
“Jonathan is a big second row who we’re hugely excited about. He played for Bridgend last season and had a few games for Ospreys A in the British & Irish Cup, so he comes with a wealth of experience.
“Iwan is a great player from Cardiff Uni and Bedwas. He spent last season out in Kowloon in the Hong Kong Premiership with his brother. He’s a good player and is keen to increase his rugby experience.
“Ross is a really good back, he was my varsity 10 and has played with me at Pontypool. Rhys has played at Cross Keys, is a really dogged flanker and has played rugby league for Wales and Graham who I also signed at Pontypool. They’re all good characters and fit the bill out here.”
Most of the injuries the club sustained came right at the beginning of the season, just at a time when they were starting to build momentum. And Tonkin praised his players for still being able to produce a fine season – something he is intent on replicating and even improving upon.
“Last year had some significant injuries. First and foremost they’re all back fully fit which is a huge boost as they’re all fantastic players,” added Tonkin.
“Unlike other clubs we haven’t got the numbers due to the lack of foot-fall in Bahrain so we were lucky to have performed well with a lightweight squad. We had 24/25 players at elite level.
“The focus (this summer) has been on increasing the depth and working with the guys slightly below that, to bring them up a level in terms of standard, and recruiting in the right areas to give us a 32-man squad.
“The teams that were successful (last season) were the ones with big squads. We played Quins three times and didn’t play against the same back line once, they have such depth and quality. We really need to increase both of those areas across the squad.”
The entrance of the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs into the newly expanded PRO14 marks an exciting new chapter for South African rugby – and to a similar extent the game in the north.
For the South African teams, culled from the reduced Super Rugby tournament back in April, it gives them the perfect escape route and also saves the South African Rugby Union (SARU) from being torn to shreds for taking top class rugby away from the heartlands of Free State and the Eastern Cape.
With the South African Rand trading at 17.5 to the British Pound it’s a big injection of cash to the local game while a reported £6million (Dh29.1m) is going back the other way with Supersport purchasing TV rights for the new tournament.
Each of the 12 existing European clubs will receive £500,000 (Dh2.4m) as a one-off boost this season, which will greatly help to retain players and bring in a few stars, like Leigh Halfpenny who is being tempted back from Toulon to the Scarlets.
There are those of course in the south who will meet the expansion with great suspicion. A similar move was tried in Super Rugby two years ago with the Jaguares from Argentina and the Sunwolves from Japan admitted to an enlarged 18 team format. The result: disaster.
The new four conference system became a farce as South African teams, now spared facing New Zealand opponents in the regular season, excelled while Australian teams, who now had to play Kiwi teams every fortnight, nose-dived.
So bad did results become crowds and ratings dipped as fans turned off the convoluted fixture list and eventually the real power brokers – the broadcasters – said enough was enough.
It came to a head in April when SANZAAR announced the tournament would shrink back to 15 teams with two South African teams – the Cheetahs and Kings – and one Australian team to be axed.
But now Super Rugby’s loss is PRO14’s gain – and don’t expect this northern expansion to go the same way as the south.
There are four reasons why the PRO14 move will succeed where Super Rugby move failed.
Firstly travel – a flight from Europe to South Africa is a lot less nightmarish than many of the flights in Super Rugby involving New Zealand, Argentina, Japan and Australia. The travel schedules of some Super Rugby sides are so arduous its amazing they get on to the field at all.
Secondly time zones – most of Europe and South Africa are on the same time zone so it means matches will come through at viewer-friendly times for both markets, adding some prime rugby fixtures to the broadcast schedule.
Thirdly, a global season: PRO14 will be played in South Africa’s summer so it means the Republic will now have summer rugby. Apart from some hot days in Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, year round rugby is a tantalising prospect for fanatics in South Africa.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the rugby: the Cheetahs and the Kings are both known for their expansive styles and there will be some intriguing match ups between northern brawn and southern speed.
The PRO14 will produce extremes of climate – a chilly evening in Newport to a warm afternoon on the highveldt – and extremes of styles, as well as a few unfortunate match-ups, but there is every reason at this early stage to think bigger may be better in this case.
Their emergence has led to fears clubs could be ravaged of players – including his own – but Dubai Hurricanes director of rugby Mike Wernham believes the emergence of Dubai Eagles is a good thing for rugby in the UAE.
Rumours the new Dubai Sports City outfit would feature next season was confirmed at the start of July when the new 2017/18 calendar was released, immediately leading to fears that a centrally located top tier club in the UAE’s second city would result in mass player exoduses from other Dubai clubs.
And while the likes of Dubai Sharks and Arabian Knights have been left searching for a new home – having essentially been kicked out of DSC – Wernham is happy the Eagles have landed.
This is despite the fact Canes have lost hooker and UAE international Josh Ives to the newly established outfit over the summer.
“We haven’t lost, at this moment, too many players. Just Josh Ives so far who’s joined their coaching staff as a rugby development officer,” said Wernham.
“It’s more of a career path move rather than wanting to leave Hurricanes. We’re sad to see Josh go, being a UAE player and an outstanding club man, but we completely understood it.”
Sharks are one side who have reportedly seen a clutch of players leave for Eagles, while consternation greeted the news that the long-time Sports City residents, as well as Knights, had been issued an ultimatum of join the new team or find a new home.
But Wernham welcomes them. “It’s an exciting prospect what’s coming to Sports City. I know Sean Carey (Eagles director of rugby) well, having been a former Canes player,” Wernham said.
“What they’ve got there, I’m a huge believer in that we should be trying to grow rugby in the UAE and Middle East so they did have our full support, we’re encouraging them, we just want to make sure it’s done in the right way.
“There was a bit of a surprise the way it came out suddenly at the end of the season via one email. There had been rumours circulating for two or three years.
“But having spoke to Josh it seems numbers are getting bigger each session and we’re looking forward to going there and hosting them next season.”
Wernham says he has been hugely encouraged by the club’s start to pre-season, with average numbers at gym sessions hitting 45, while they have also been busy on the recruitment front too. Former Wales Under-20, Wales sevens and Newport Gwent Dragons winger Matthew Pewtner has been appointed as the club’s new back coach.
Wernham added: “Matthew’s was an absolutely superb CV to read. He played for Newport Gwent Dragons for 10 years, played on the international sevens circuit too.
“It came by chance and after a few Skype interviews we know he’s going to be a great addition, he’s excited to be coming out and joining Hurricanes.”
Pewtner, 26, arrives in Dubai having been forced to retire from playing in early 2016 due to concussion concerns.
“As a result of Eagles coming and setting up at Sports City, it’s meant several guys leaving clubs around there,” said Wernham.
“We’re not a club that goes heavy in terms of recruitment. We just like to try and send a message of what we offer and give the best experience possible. We’re always going to remain competitive as possible and what we give in return is a competitive package.
“We’ve got some really good experience and some really good younger guys too. And we know with new teachers coming in for the new term, that will raise competition too and keep everyone on their toes.”