The Louie Tonkin effect on Bahrain has created a huge buzz around the club, with the man himself believing people are daring to dream anything is possible.
For so long a meandering club living in the shadow of more illustrious neighbours Doha in the Gulf’s western region, the Welshman set about a transformation when he arrived 12 months ago that started to come to fruition by the end of the 2016/17 season.
Bahrain finished third in the West Asia Premiership, winning seven of their 12 games, and gave Abu Dhabi Harlequins a stern test in the final of the West Asia Cup before succumbing to a 31-25 defeat.
Although they failed to lift any silverware, Tonkin insists their season has instilled hope in his players and everyone connected to the club.
“I’ve never seen a more excited group of players,” Tonkin said about the early weeks of pre-season.
“We did well last year and I think it’s given perhaps the guys who’ve been here a long time and not had much success, it’s given them a sniff of what can be achieved if they work hard.
“They’re working their a**** off in the gym right now, some who perhaps haven’t been in the gym before. It’s brought a really good edge to the squad and everybody’s working hard. There’s a real buzz about starting the league.”
Bahrain start their 2017/18 campaign with an eye-catching West Asia Cup final rematch with Mike McFarlane’s all-conquering Quins on September 29 in the West Asia Premiership, and Tonkin revealed his players are working extremely hard during the arduous summer months.
Clubs around the UAE have voiced their collective dismay after Dubai Wasps were forced to fold due to ruinous finances.
Wasps announced a month ago the club’s demise was a distinct possibility due to mounting financial concerns. The loss of major sponsor the Rose & Crown Dubai at the beginning of July set in motion the countdown to other deals being lost, leaving the club with a Dh50,000 deficit heading into the 2017/18 season.
Co-chairmen Laurence Parker and Ben Rothwell sent messages to players asking each to commit to paying a Dh500 membership fee for the coming season by early August, otherwise they felt that calling it a day would be the only option.
Increasingly depleted player numbers in recent years was also a major concern for the club, which has been battling to keep its head above water since 2014 – with players now free to join, and some having already left for, other clubs.
Rothwell confirmed the news on Friday, saying: “We have withdrawn for the 2017/18 season. We will possibly enter teams into the Eden Park 7s and Sharjah 10s as a social side but players are free to join other clubs. Costs are just too high.”
The rugby community rallied round Wasps upon hearing the news, with Sharjah Wanderers chairman Shane Breen fearing Wasps might not be the last club to fall by the wayside in what has been an increasingly alarming season off the field for rugby in the UAE.
“It was a shock to read about Wasps having to call it quits despite knowing for a while they’ve been in trouble,” said Breen.
“With Dubai Sports City closing its doors to two clubs and sponsors pulling back, Wasps might not be the only club forced to close its doors.”
Those fears were echoed by Andy Cole – the chairman of Abu Dhabi Harlequins who themselves lost major sponsor Etihad earlier this summer, putting in doubt the hosting of their mini and youth tournament next season, as well as the supplying of next term’s playing and training kit.
“Of course it’s very sad to see any club fold, but we have seen others go in the past and there will be others in the future,” Cole forewarned.
“There are plenty of clubs where the players can go thankfully but it’s sad for Wasps and the efforts by people to get the club up and running for so many years.”
RAK Rugby counterpart Simon Williams said his team had been preparing to encounter Wasps in next season’s UAE Community League, which is now set to run with 10 teams, while the second tier UAE Conference will run with just nine.
“It’s sad to hear this as we were looking forward to playing them in the Community League. It’s a shame when the financial commitments required to play in a league stop groups of rugby lads playing,” said Williams.
“I hope this isn’t the prelude to other clubs going the same way as diversity is generally good for a local competitive league to prosper. I wish them all the best of luck.”
One positive, according to Jebel Ali Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn, is that Wasps’ demise might strengthen other Dubai clubs who are also going through testing times.
Quinn said: “It’s not great news for the players of Wasps. The only positive I can take from it is that their demise might add a bit of strength and stability across the other clubs. Something has to be done to help clubs as it’s such an uneven playing field of costs and support.”
RAK Rugby is the official new name of Ras Al Khaimah’s rugby team – drawing to an end a long-running saga over what to call the UAE’s most northerly-based club.
Rugby has been played in the region since 1969, and the first name that adorned the club jersey was ‘Goats’. That has caused issues over the years, and when the club debuted in the inaugural Community League three years ago, they were forced to change their name to ‘Rocks’ by the UAE Rugby Federation.
Officially they did, although they still continued to go by the original name, but chairman Simon Williams says the new ‘Rugby’ moniker is more encompassing and is here to stay.
“We’ve been very busy since the end of season and over the summer with a number of changes underway,” said Williams.
“First is the name changing from the RAK Goats to RAK Rugby. We had some potential issues with the name and at first glance it didn’t really tell anyone who we were and what we did, unless you were already involved in UAE rugby.
“At the same time, we were developing the club with a mini and youth section, an Under-19 Emirati team and we hope a women’s sevens team.
“The name therefore didn’t really reflect the diversity of our membership, or help with recruiting sponsors or growing the club locally, so for all these reasons we have decided to change it to RAK Rugby.
“It’s simple, clear and effective and still allows us to have nicknames for the various teams that fall under the RAK Rugby banner.”
The relationship between rugby and Ras Al Khaimah has been as rich as the oil that feeds the UAE, with the game played in the northern region in some guise since the first expatriate oil and port workers arrived 50 years ago.
RAK Goats were officially established in 1981, named after the indigenous goats that were found in the local Hajar Mountains.
The latest reincarnation of rugby in RAK saw the club re-established in 2013 after a seven-year absence by a group of enthusiasts disillusioned with travelling to the nearest club in Sharjah to play. The team turned up to the Sharjah 10s, borrowed some playing kit and ended up winning the Plate final.
In 2015/16 the club lost every single one of their inaugural Community League encounters, but better was to come last term as they finished a respectable fourth, while their nomadic existence was rectified somewhat when they found a home at their iconic sand pitch, built on the beach at the Bin Majid Resort.
They even won the Fair Play Team award at the UAE RF end of season awards, as well as attracting local and international interest and new sponsors.
“There are now big plans in place for RAK Rugby going forward,” added Williams.
“We’ve teamed up with Tower Links Golf Club to use their facility for floodlit grass training and we have showers now rather than a dip in the sea.
“We’ve also become associated with Barjeel health club for some pre-season strength and conditioning training and have three coaches to work on our game, two of which are specialised coaches.
“There are other plans afoot but these are still in the formation phase at present, but pre-season has started and we are actively recruiting new players and can’t wait to play the Arabian Knights on September 29.
“We will be having a trials session at the golf club on September 8 involving several local organisations and a barbecue and disco afterwards at Tower Links. Anyone is welcome to come along.”