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.”
Know more about Sport360 Application