Louie Tonkin is excited to be part of this year’s Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League tournament as it provides his otherwise isolated Bahrain team with high-quality competition ahead of the new campaign.
The new Gulf rugby season begins in earnest this weekend with the return of the Champions League.
The competition, which has become the traditional curtain-raiser to the rugby season in the UAE and Gulf as a whole, kicks off in Sri Lanka as Kandy host West Asia Cup winners Bahrain on Friday.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins also feature at the mini three-team tournament – receiving an invite after West Asia Premiership champions Jebel Ali Dragons decided against taking part.
It means that the same three teams as last year are taking part, with Mike McFarlane’s Quins looking to defend their crown and lift it for the third season in a row.
But Bahrain will hope to add the title to the West Asia Cup they won in a pulsating 2017/18 in which silverware was highly contested between Tonkin’s men, as well as Quins, Jebel Ali Dragons and Dubai Exiles.
“Usually it’s supposed to be the West Asia Cup, West Asia Premiership champions and the Sri Lankan champions, but the Dragons pulled out for whatever reasons,” said Tonkin, whose side flew out to Sri Lanka on Wednesday.
“Quins finished second so subsequently got invited and accepted the challenge. I’m really happy to be playing Quins again. A really good group of lads and we love competing against them, so I’m delighted they accepted the invite to be part of the competition.
“It’s a great competition to be part of this time of year. It’s so difficult for us in Bahrain as we’re isolated, to get good fixtures before the season starts, so we’re always delighted to be part of this competition.
“It’s a bit more silverware if you win but we can also rotate the squad, get players integrated and have two really good hit-outs before the league starts.
“We’re very excited about playing Kandy because it’s so different to the type of opposition we face out here. They’re so fluent in their attacking play, so quick, so we’re looking forward to playing them and testing out our defence against such a good attacking unit.”
This year, all three teams will play once at home, after Bahrain travelled to both Kandy and Abu Dhabi last year to ensure the competition went ahead.
Kandy welcome Bahrain on Friday, with Kandy heading to the UAE capital to play Quins at Zayed Sports City next Friday, September 7. The tournament concludes the following Friday, September 14, when Quins travel to Bahrain.
The competition looks to be wide open in 2018/19 after the major trophies were shared between four teams last term – breaking Quins’ utter dominance of the rugby landscape in the Gulf in 2016/17.
Dragons claimed the main Premiership title, while Bahrain won the Cup. Exiles claimed the Dubai Sevens crown, while the UAE Premiership was also theirs.
Dubai Hurricanes won the West Asia Trophy and Quins lifted the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup and kept the Champions League title.
“Like everyone else we’ve got to cope with the Gulf mindset of a summer, so we didn’t start back until August 1,” Tonkin said of his side’s summer preparations.
“But we’ve had a really good four weeks in preparation for this game, which does come a little early perhaps, but we had to fit it in somewhere.
“We’ve only had four weeks training so we will be pretty raw. We’ve had a few new players come in, a few Cardiff University graduates who are engineers who will be working in Saudi. We’ve jumped on them and they’ll be really good additions to our group.”
Tonkin is also happy to have a home fixture this year, adding: “It’s been structured this year so all three teams have a home game.
“It’s a great opportunity for us as it’s difficult to get a home game these days, teams don’t seem to want to travel to us, so we’re delighted Quins are gladly coming to us.”
Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League fixtures:
Kandy v Bahrain
Abu Dhabi Quins v Kandy
Bahrain v Abu Dhabi Quins
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