Louie Tonkin leads his Bahrain side into an early top of the table West Asia Premiership battle with Abu Dhabi Harlequins this weekend – but the Welshman insists it’s far too early to be talking about title deciders.
Bahrain and Quins are the form sides in early part of the 2018/19 campaign, with both sides boasting four wins from five games. Quins sit atop the standings on 20 points – just one point ahead of Tonkin’s charges by virtue of having earned one more bonus point.
Mike McFarlane’s side have turned in four straight wins following an opening day 24-14 defeat to Friday’s opponents in Abu Dhabi. Bahrain, meanwhile, were downed 31-20 at The Sevens by Dubai Exiles at the beginning of October, but then beat champions Jebel Ali Dragons before a resounding 45-15 trouncing of Dubai Hurricanes last weekend.
Now they welcome Quins to Saar, although Tonkin is downplaying the significance of the game.
“People say it’s a top-of-the-table clash, but we’re not paying attention to that right now, it’s only round six out of 15 so every game is equally important, especially home games, so we’ll hope for a big game and improve on the Hurricanes performance,” he said.
“It’s a step in the right direction (last week’s win) but we know we need to be better again against Quins this weekend.
This Friday, 2nd November is a top of the table clash in the WA Premiership, between old rivals Bahrain RFC and Abu Dhabi Harlequins!— Bahrain Rugby (@bahrainrfc) 29 October 2018
Golden Oldies v Bahrain Select 2PM K.O.
Bahrain RFC v Abu Dhabi Harlequins 5PM K.O.
📷 LIVE STREAMED from our FB Page!#bahrainrugby #REDWALL pic.twitter.com/5U6xQmCScM
“We’ve got them at home, it’s a big, big game. They’ve got some form and picked up a big win against Exiles so that’s going to be a massive challenge.”
Quins have notched 30 points or more in each of their last four games since losing to Bahrain on opening night – beating Dragons 46-22, Dubai Eagles 50-21, Canes 31-21 and Exiles a week ago 44-20 to make a mockery of pre-season suggestions they could struggle.
Games come thick and fast this season and each side will face their opponents three times. Bahrain will play each opponent away twice, so the onus is on them to pick up points at home.
“It’s been a good few weeks for us,” added Tonkin.
“We were gutted to pick up that loss against Exiles. We played poorly and just didn’t turn up. Exiles did and picked up the win.
“That was really disappointing. We went to Dragons and ground out a win, although we still played pretty poorly or below our potential we think we have.
“We had a few weeks off and got a few boys back. That first block of games was difficult – particularly with the Champions League beforehand. It meant we had six games in seven weeks and that’s the most we’ve ever played, and we’re a small squad.
“We got a few boys back against Canes and performed well. We were dominant up front and used that to our advantage. We played well and scored some very good tries.”
They sit atop the early West Asia Premiership table, perhaps surprisingly so after an arduous off-season, but Mike McFarlane has warned Abu Dhabi Harlequins that the hard work has only just begun.
Quins were predicted to struggle this season after another tumultuous summer involving player departures and fears over finances, not to mention their return of just two minor trophies from the 2017/18 campaign.
The major honours – West Asia and UAE Premiership, Dubai Sevens and West Asia Cup – were claimed by their three main rivals Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Exiles and Bahrain, prompting suggestions that trio’s rise would contribute to Quins continuing to struggle.
Yet it is Quins that lead the way after five games – McFarlane’s men posting four wins from five and leading the table by a point from equally impressive Bahrain.
But the Englishman is not getting too carried away, despite seeing the returning Brian Geraghty cross for two tries as Exiles were swept aside 44-20 at The Sevens on Friday night.
“We are chuffed to be where we are but it’s a long season and we know the hard work has just begun,” said McFarlane.
“It’s been a tough start to the season with multiple injuries and unavailability every week but the players are training hard in all teams and players stepping up have jumped in seamlessly and the boys have got results.
“We are developing a much improved understanding of why we are trying to do certain things which is reflecting in the players and teams’ performance.”
The return of Irish centre Geraghty is a huge fillip for Quins. It was his departure last summer – along with Willie Umu and Patrick Jenkinson – which started the slide as Quins relinquished their grip on four of the five trophies they had amassed during 2016/17’s quintuple.
Defeat brought to an end a three-game winning sequence for Jacques Benade’s Exiles – who are third in the table, five points adrift of Quins.
“I’m really impressed and proud with the commitment of all the players throughout the teams as we put three men’s teams out again at the weekend when times are really tough with numbers,” added McFarlane.
“To come away with two comprehensive victories against a table-topping rival is outstanding.
“However we are into a new week. We will go over the analysis and feedback as individuals and a team and prepare to face Bahrain away which we know is always the toughest game of the season.”
Elsewhere, Premiership champions Dragons got back to winning ways with a morale-boosting 31-14 win at Dubai Eagles.
In a mirror image of Exiles’ start to the season, Dragons had lost three on the bounce since an opening day victory.
That maiden win came against Exiles, who are Dragons’ opponents next weekend in Jebel Ali. The champions are 10 points off the pace being set by Quins and skipper Ross Samson knows a double must be done over Exiles, otherwise their chances of repeating last season’s heroics will be finished.
“Exiles is a must win or our season is over,” the Scotsman said bluntly.
The boys put on their most complete performance of the season yesterday, with a convincing 6 try, bonus point win over the Canes!— Bahrain Rugby (@bahrainrfc) 27 October 2018
This bodes extremely well leading into next week's top of the table clash against Abu Dhabi Harlequins right here at BRFC 🇧🇭#REDWALL #bahrainrugby pic.twitter.com/xLtWdM7SlV
“We got back to winning ways against Eagles but we dropped a few over the line and our discipline so far has been poor. We’ve had a yellow or a red card in every game – three against Bahrain and we only just lost.
“We were terrible against Canes (Dubai Hurricanes, lost 27-11) but we will be sweet. I’m pretty positive about our squad this year.”
Eagles have played well in five defeats this term, yet prop up the table with only one bonus point to show from five encounters.
“It was a tough day at the office again,” said Eagles fly-half Sean Carey, who missed the game along with several other key men.
“It was always going to be tough against Dragons. The season is tough this year with so many games.”
The biggest margin of victory on Friday came in the west of the region as Bahrain trounced visitors Canes 45-15. With the season a third of the way through, their clash with Quins in Saar next weekend already feels seismic.
Lawes is to leave the squad’s training camp in the Algarve to receive specialist treatment in the UK, placing a question mark over his involvement in the first of four internationals at Twickenham next Saturday.
The issue first surfaced on the day of Northampton’s defeat by Leicester on October 6, a back spasm incurred after sleeping in a hotel bed that was ill-suited to his 6′ 7” frame the previous night forcing him to withdraw during the warm-up to the game.
He has played once since – at home to Clermont – and must now prove his fitness if he is to face the Springboks.
“Courtney Lawes will return to England for specialist treatment on a pre-existing back injury,” forwards coach Steve Borthwick said.
“He is expected to return to Portugal early next week. He has taken part in modified training this week.”