Louie Tonkin admitted Bahrain reached the West Asia Cup final “the hard way” but to host a first cross border Gulf final in over a decade is a special moment for the club.
Having enjoyed their heyday in the 1980s, with the club’s name regularly etched on the winners’ trophies of the Arabian Gulf League, Arabian Gulf Cup and Dubai Sevens competitions, success has been much harder to come by for Bahrain in the last decade.
With the rise of neighbours Doha and a burgeoning club rugby scene emerging in the UAE, Bahrain have endured a prolonged trophy drought since winning the Arabian Gulf Premiership in 2010.
But that could all change next weekend following an impressive 26-21 victory against Abu Dhabi Harlequins on Friday, a result that gifts Tonkin’s side a second consecutive West Asia Cup final appearance and, more importantly, sees them host Dubai Exiles next Friday.
“I think it’s the first West Asia Cup final in Bahrain in 10 years and we’re really excited about that opportunity,” said Tonkin, who has been the driving force behind the club’s resurgence since being appointed director of rugby in July 2016.
After finishing third in the West Asia Premiership behind runners-up Quins and champions Jebel Ali Dragons earlier this month, Bahrain were given the arduous task of going to Zayed Sports City to take on the side that beat them 31-25 in a thrilling West Asia Cup final 12 months ago – an early sign that Bahrain were on the cusp of something special under Tonkin.
Their chances of a repeat appearance seemed even slimmer when they went behind 21-6 in the UAE capital to Mike McFarlane’s reigning champions – but a stunning second half fightback saw Bahrain score 20 unanswered points to set up a showdown on home soil with Exiles in a week’s time.
“I don’t think anyone would have predicted us hosting a home final,” added Tonkin.
“I think people could have predicted Exiles beating Dragons because they beat them at home earlier this season. I heard they’d won five minutes before the end of our game and we were up two points at the time.
“It then turned into a reality and when I broke the news to the players at the final whistle, it was a really great moment. Those moments are really special. The boys were elated.”
It was a first triumph over Quins under Tonkin’s reign following five defeats and a 15-15 draw in the league last September. And while talent has rarely been an issue under the former Cardiff University head coach’s tenure, Tonkin said his players finally discovered some belief under the ZSC lights on Friday.
“I’m hugely proud of the result. The boys worked really hard all season long and played some tough games recently,” added Tonkin.
“The Dragons loss (defeated by Quins 36-32 on March 9) was a big blow to us and our goal is now to win the West Asia Cup. We knew we had to do it the hard way after losing to Dragons, going to Quins away, and win. It’s worked out fantastically well for us.”
Of the hard-fought win, Tonkin added: “We know how big a challenge it was for us. Quins have had a difficult year this year. I was talking to Mike before the game about the injuries they’ve had and loss of so many players, but they’ve got a brilliant squad.
“They had a number of guys out but were still able to field a strong team, which is a measure of a good squad and management.
“It was a fantastic game, really high intensity. They dominated the first half with some really good play. We had a crazy high penalty count but the tide turned in the second half in our favour.
“We converted some chances. We were down 21-6 at one stage but we scored 20 unanswered points and the boys showed a real belief, they were fantastic.
“All season long we’ve been talking about this team believing in themselves. When they do you can see it in them. There were some heroic performances. Our back row battled for 80 minutes, the boys off the bench made a real contribution. Ross Preedy had a great game at 10.”
It’s been a troublesome season for Quins and their coach McFarlane, who has somehow kept his team competitive despite losing a raft of players before and throughout the campaign.
After winning five trophies a year ago, Quins won their first of 2017/18 earlier this month when they beat Exiles to lift the UAE Premiership Cup. They will face Exiles again in the Premiership final next month, which brings the curtain down on the domestic season, and McFarlane paid tribute to Bahrain and counterpart Tonkin.
“It was a great game,” said the Englishman.
“We were up at half time and extended the lead but with the depth in quality they have we were always going struggle in the second half with so many first team players missing.
“Massive congrats to Louie and the lads. They’re a cracking bunch of boys and I wish them all the luck for the final.”
England’s international players will make a mass return to domestic action this weekend following the rigours of a punishing NatWest 6 Nations campaign.
Only four of the England match-day 23 involved against Ireland at Twickenham last Saturday are absent when the Aviva Premiership takes centre stage after a three-week break.
Anthony Watson, Owen Farrell and George Kruis are all injured, while England captain Dylan Hartley misses Northampton’s clash against Newcastle at St James’ Park on Saturday because of illness.
Seventeen players on Six Nations duty last weekend start for their clubs, with two others – props Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler – among the substitutes for Saracens and Harlequins respectively.
While much focus will be on the England contingent, attention also surrounds Wales wing George North’s appearance for Northampton.
He has been named to start against the Falcons following the internal disciplinary action taken by the Saints against him for missing a training session earlier this month.
A crowd approaching 30,000 is likely for play-off hopefuls Newcastle’s appearance at the home of Newcastle United.
“I have been there for Newcastle United games, Rugby World Cup and Rugby league Magic Weekend, and it’s just an incredible venue,” Falcons Rugby director Dean Richards said.
“I am sure our guys will show a great focus and really rise to the challenge.
“They’ve done it many times already this season, and it is an enormously exciting time to be involved with the club right now.”
Saracens are also on different territory, with a 57,000 sell-out confirmed for a London Stadium appointment with Harlequins as the European champions start with England trio Richard Wigglesworth, Jamie George and Maro Itoje.
Saracens Rugby director Mark McCall said: “It feels as though the first seven months of the season has had its challenges.
“It’s been tough and we have had a few things to contend with, but we’ve got to the home straight and we are in pretty good shape, as it were. It is time now to get excited about what is ahead.”
Premiership relegation favourites London Irish will go into battle against Madejski Stadium visitors Gloucester on Saturday under their new coaching team of Declan Kidney and Les Kiss, and just 48 hours after Rugby director Nick Kennedy departed the club.
And Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann is wary as his play-off hopefuls tackle a team currently 12 points adrift of 11th-placed Worcester – the Warriors visit Sale Sharks on Saturday – with just five league games left.
“Obviously I think they will be a side who will be hungry and desperate,” Ackermann said. “They’ve had a change in coaching staff, and sometimes that can bring new energy and excitement. It’s going to be a big test for us.”
Sunday’s Premiership action, meanwhile, sees Leicester hoping to keep themselves in the play-off mix when they tackle Wasps at Welford Road.
Wales wing George North will return to domestic action when he lines up for Northampton against Newcastle on Saturday.
Saints announced on Tuesday that North had been “disciplined internally” after missing a training session ahead of an Aviva Premiership appointment with Sale Sharks on March 3.
He was absent from the Sale match, after which Saints’ interim boss Alan Gaffney suggested the 25-year-old had not wanted to play for the club.
North, who started Wales’ last two NatWest 6 Nations games against Italy and France, returned to club training on Monday.
North’s contract at Northampton expires at the end of this season, and he will join one of the four Welsh regional teams in the summer on a national dual contract.
Northampton have five league games left, starting at St James’ Park this weekend, with 73 times-capped North among five changes in the starting XV.
England captain Dylan Hartley, meanwhile, does not feature, with Saints saying he is sidelined through illness after returning from international duty.
"The players have had a week off so they've come back refreshed and ready to go."— Northampton Saints (@SaintsRugby) March 23, 2018
Alan Dickens on the trip to Newcastle and the absence of skipper Dylan Hartley pic.twitter.com/tfn31HAbOE
Northampton have also announced that fly-half Stephen Myler will leave the club at the end of this season.
Goalkicker Myler, 33, joined Saints in 2006 after switching codes from Rugby league. He won a 15-a-side England cap against Argentina seven years later.
He has made more than 300 first-team appearances for Saints, and was instrumental in the club winning domestic and European honours in 2014. He has amassed more than 1,600 Premiership points.
“I am extremely proud to have spent almost 12 seasons at Franklin’s Gardens, and I hope I’ve been able to repay the club for the opportunity they gave me and the faith they showed in me by playing as many games as I have,” Myler said, in a statement released by the club.
“I will leave with memories that will stay with me forever, having played and enjoyed success in many key games in the club’s history.
“But the time has come for me to move on. I am grateful for what has been, but I’m ready and looking forward to what my future holds.”