Louie Tonkin heads to Exeter Chiefs having transformed Bahrain into giant of Gulf rugby

Matt Jones - Editor 17:47 10/06/2019
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Louie Tonkin (2nd l) heads to Exeter Chiefs having turned Bahrain into a Gulf rugby superpower.

Louie Tonkin is taking up a position with one of the biggest rugby teams in the world, but admits he will leave the Middle East with a very heavy heart.

The Welshman will pack his bags and leave Bahrain in the coming weeks, returning home to the United Kingdom where he will take up a role in Exeter Chiefs’ academy. He leaves the west Asia outfit as the dominant force in Gulf rugby and is heading for a dream opportunity he hopes will eventually lead to professional coaching.

But he admits he is scared to leave a country whose sole rugby club he has totally transformed, as well as his own rugby philosophy. He’s even met his fiancee, Hayley, out here.

“The new challenge is hugely exciting,” said Tonkin, 36, who led Bahrain to the West Asia Premiership and West Asia Cup double this term.

“It’s a big change. I’m not overly happy to leave this region yet, we didn’t plan to leave so soon as we’ve loved it in Bahrain and we’re scared to leave and will miss it.

“But the challenge of working with a club like Exeter Chiefs is a huge opportunity for me. I’ve always said I’d like to get back to the professional elite game, wherever that may be.

“Chiefs would be a top-three dream employer, in the world.

“I went there for my interview and was overwhelmed by the professionalism, the people and Sandy Park. It’s a fantastic place, and stimulated me so much. I just couldn’t turn it down.

“I can’t wait to try and develop further and be around world-class players and coaches and learn from them. I want to get back on the path I was a few years ago and reach the pinnacle.

“I want to be a successful professional coach for the rest of my career and I think I’ve made a positive step towards doing that.”

Tonkin, from Builth Wells in mid Wales, came out to the Gulf in July 2016 in need of a professional and personal reset, having enjoyed a succession of success coaching Cardiff University, Llandovery, Pontypool and Carmarthen Quins in his homeland.

The man mountain former Wales youth basketball international stands at a giant 6’ 6” but met his match with his latest task – dragging Bahrain from the shadows of obscurity to the No1 team in the region.

Steady improvement was Tonkin’s calling card throughout his first two seasons – even if he felt they over-performed to reach the inaugural West Asia Cup final in his first year, although they were consummately beaten by Abu Dhabi Harlequins.

They returned a year later and beat Dubai Exiles to lift a first trophy in eight years. They followed it up with the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League title in pre-season and Tonkin’s epilogue to his three-year story in Bahrain was bookended by leading them to a dominant West Asia Premiership title triumph – a campaign in which they lost just once in 17 games.

“I’ve had a fantastic time with Bahrain, it’s been a brilliant experience,” added Tonkin.

Tonkin (back row, 2nd l) led Bahrain to the West Asia Cup title in 2018 - it was a first trophy for the club in eight years.

Tonkin (back row, 2nd l) led Bahrain to the West Asia Cup title in 2018 – it was a first trophy for the club in eight years.

“I came out here three years ago and didn’t know what to expect. I’d seen some footage from previous results, but obviously results weren’t very good back then. I didn’t come in with too much expectation, it was just the challenge of growth.

“We’ve had a great three seasons categorised by steady progression. We were competitive each year and finished in the top four in our first year.

“Perhaps we overachieved really where we reached the last four against Doha and lost in the final (West Asia Cup) to a far better side in Harlequins.

“It was a great stepping stone and created an environment where there suddenly was an expectation, a belief. They (the players) realised they could do well and be successful in this league.

“They expected to beat top teams consistently and we took that into our second season.

“We still struggled against Quins in the early part but then beat them in the West Asia Cup semis and won the cup. We still weren’t the finished article.

“(Jebel Ali) Dragons beat us in the final game of the season at our place to win the league and that hurt us but motivated us, galvanised us.

“That’s what we wanted to do the next year. And in the third year I felt we got pretty close to where I wanted us to be.

“We were the dominant force, won the league by a fair distance and won a hard-fought final.”

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