Bahrain may have ended an eight-year trophy drought with victory over Dubai Exiles in a thrilling West Asia Cup final – but Adam Wallace has warned rivals that his side are not the finished article yet.
After so many near misses, glory finally arrived for the side playing most westerly in Gulf rugby’s circle as the Red Wall got over the hump of a barren few years in style with a 47-25 thumping of Exiles on their home patch on Friday.
The club has been steadily improving in recent years which has progressed rapidly under the guidance of head coach Louie Tonkin, who arrived in the Middle East in July 2016.
Bahrain made the final of this competition a year ago and took the game to hosts Abu Dhabi Harlequins at Zayed Sports City in the first-half before falling to a 31-25 in the UAE capital.
Despite boasting a talented crop of players that had impressed in challenging for the West Asia Premiership title this term, Tonkin has often felt his side lack belief that they can compete with the big sides.
But they finally got the monkey off their back with Friday’s win – almost a year to the day since their loss to Quins. Wallace has now insisted they will not be content with simply ending a drought that goes back to the 2010 Arabian Gulf Premiership.
“It was a class result and a huge day for the club,” said a beaming Wallace.
“We’ve been working toward this point for the past four years, we’re not the finished article at all as we finished third in the domestic league but we’ve gone a step further than last year which is huge for us, and it helps us build to the future.
“We know the competition grows massively each year and next year, teams will make a step up again and it’s important that we do too to stay competitive.”
So long a talismanic figure for the Red Wall, Wallace has been forced to take a back seat for much of this season, having been plagued by persistent injuries.
After spending a large chunk of the first half of the 2017/18 campaign on the sidelines, he returned to the fold early this year, only to be forced back to the treatment table shortly after making his return.
But the project Tonkin has installed since taking over at Bahrain nearly two years ago has seen them develop, with quality players brought in to reinvigorate a side so often held together by Wallace during his first two years in the country.
Although injury has robbed him of having much of an impact on the pitch this term, he remains a core ingredient of their success, with Tonkin bringing him on board as part of the coaching staff.
And Wallace admits he’s loved retaining the feeling of being a special part of the club’s journey and their newfound success.
“I was absolutely gutted I couldn’t be playing (Friday) but so proud of the team and what we have built at Bahrain over the last couple of years,” he said.
“I’ve had a season plagued with injuries and took a range of different knocks that kept me out all year. But I’ve been assistant coach to Louie all year and it’s definitely added to my CV coaching the team this year. I’ll chalk this one up to experience and go again next year.”
Winger Conway’s decisive score from a kick return, which saw him beat four defenders from near halfway, sent the Irish province through to a record 13th European semi-final and a trip to France to face either Clermont Auvergne or Racing 92.
Replacement Francois Trinh-Duc almost inspired a famous Limerick victory for Toulon, kicking two penalties and having a key involvement in Chris Ashton’s converted try as the three-time champions began the final quarter with 13 points in little over seven minutes.
However, Munster – who led 10-6 at half-time thanks to an opportunist Conor Murray try near the half hour mark – used all of their cup nous to pull off a gritty comeback triumph thanks to Conway’s dazzling effort and Ian Keatley’s all-important conversion.
Toulon’s threat was obvious right from the first minute, fortune favouring Munster as Simon Zebo did just enough to prevent Ashton from scoring off Eric Escande’s dangerous kick. Not for the first time, the hosts rode their luck in avoiding a possible penalty try.
Peter O’Mahony’s lineout steal, coupled with Conway’s vital tackle on Josua Tuisova on the opposite wing, kept the visitors scoreless until Anthony Belleau, a late inclusion at fly-half for Trinh-Duc, fired over a well-struck 10th-minute penalty.
After Munster turned down a long-range kick, CJ Stander was squeezed out in the left corner and the covering Ashton beat Conway to a Simon Zebo kick through.
Raphael Lakafia’s hoovering up of Billy Holland’s lineout steal allowed the beefy Toulon pack to get within range for Belleau to score an 18th-minute drop goal for a 6-0 lead.
The injury-enforced withdrawal of Zebo robbed Munster of one of their key attackers but a couple of frenzied kick chases, allied to a strong carry from Jack O’Donoghue, led to Murray’s momentum-changing 27th-minute score. Toulon thought they had covered the danger, only for France captain Guilhem Guirado to knock on at a ruck close to his own line and Murray pounced to ground the ball.
A prolonged deliberation between referee Nigel Owens and TMO Jonathan Mason went Munster’s way, and Keatley converted and then tagged on a 31st-minute penalty, punishing Semi Radradra for tackling replacement Darren Sweetnam without the ball.
Murray was short and wide with a penalty attempt just inside the Toulon half, before the French powerhouses got no reward again from a Dave Attwood break and a threatening late attack that saw Sam Arnold bump Ma’a Nonu into touch.
Defences were on top in the early stages of the second period, Munster getting on the front foot with O’Mahony continuing to cause problems for the Toulon lineout. The excellent Arnold hauled down Tuisova as he threatened from deep, while the consistently well-positioned Ashton covered Sweetnam’s chip-and-chase effort.
Munster’s front row reserves came up trumps in winning a scrum penalty which Keatley turned into three points, but Toulon’s own bench proved hugely influential entering the final quarter.
Radradra just lost control of the ball as he stretched for the line, under pressure from Alex Wootton, before Trinh-Duc punished Jean Kleyn’s side entry at a maul to cut the gap to 13-9.
It got even better for the travelling support when Trinh-Duc’s offload near halfway was adjudged to be flat, releasing Mathieu Bastareaud who charged through and put the supporting Ashton diving in under the posts. Suddenly, Toulon had a grip on proceedings as Trinh-Duc’s pinpoint 48-metre penalty, won by Tuisova, gave them a 19-13 advantage.
It was all hands to the pump for Johann van Graan’s injury-hit side, replacement Niall Scannell being held up by Bastareaud before Munster’s decision to go wide was foiled by the Toulon rearguard.
Conway came to Munster’s rescue, brilliantly keeping a Trinh-Duc clearance in play and, with Tuisova having run infield, the Ireland international expertly slalomed his way through the cover to cross close to the posts. Keatley added the extras and Munster’s defence did the rest, frustrating Toulon into submission.
Schalk Burger views Saracens’ rout by Clermont earlier in the season as the “thunderbolt moment” that has guided their path to Dublin on Sunday.
The champions continue their pursuit of a third successive crown when they face European Cup favourites Leinster in a daunting quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium.
In mid-December Saracens’ title defence teetered on the brink of collapse following a record 46-16 home defeat by Clermont, a result that served as the nadir of a seven-match losing run.
They lost to the feared French giants again a week later, but a battling performance at the Stade Marcel-Michelin restored belief amid a realisation that change was needed.
“This season has had its challenges. We had that thunderbolt moment when he lost at home to Clermont,” former South Africa flanker Burger said.
“In every season there’s a game where you’re just not on it for some reason and the score blows you out of the water. We’re humans aren’t we?
“If we look back now that was probably a bit of a turning point. If you do the same things for such a long time and get good results, it’s easy to become complacent.
“The opposition catch up or maybe a rule changes or the implementation by the referees changes and then you have to adapt the way you play to try to get ascendancy back again.
“It was good for us to just sit down and simplify our way forward. That’s quite a nice process, I like that.
“It speaks volumes of a group if you can turn it around because it would be easier to disintegrate.
“Dublin is another of this season’s challenges. Leinster are an exceptional side, playing really great football. But these are the type of team that embraces these sort of challenges.”
While Stuart Lancaster’s Leinster have been invigorated by their role in Ireland’s Grand Slam success, Saracens’ sizeable England contingent have been licking their wounds after a dismal fifth-place finish in the NatWest 6 Nations.
“Obviously our boys have come back from a bit of a disappointing campaign, but then Saracens is their home,” Burger said.
“I have been in their situation many times before. It is the first time they are going through it under Eddie Jones. These things happen.
“I used to play in the old Tri-Nations where you play twice against the All Blacks and twice against the Wallabies. Without doing much wrong you lose four on the bounce.
“But the wheel turns and six months, or a couple of months even, is a long time in sport, especially Rugby.”