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.”