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

Matt Jones 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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UAE's most capped player Chris Jones-Griffiths closes final chapter on storied international career

Matt Jones 19/05/2019
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Chris Jones-Griffiths began the season enjoying the relatively sedate environment of Gulf veterans rugby. He ended it by extending his status as the UAE’s most-capped rugby international ever, at the age of 38.

The North Walian retired from top-tier UAE rugby following his adopted nation’s Asia Rugby Championship Division I campaign in Malaysia two years ago – also claiming he would step away from first-team rugby at Abu Dhabi Harlequins, who he has now been with for over a decade.

But, he answered the call to come out of semi-retirement in 2017/18 and, in 2018/19, discovered walking away from the game he loves wasn’t so easy as he thought.

He came out of retirement – temporarily – yet again, but instead played a whole season. It paid dividends as Quins returned to prominence, lifting the UAE Premiership to close out the domestic season – beating Jebel Ali Dragons 37-27. Then, he got the call to join Apollo Perelini’s UAE squad for the ARC Division II campaign in Thailand.

Jones-Griffiths scored in the 82-7 rout of Guam before also starting against the host nation in Hua Hin on Saturday as the UAE earned another handsome win to earn promotion.

Jones-Griffiths extended his own record of UAE caps to 27, but says this is now the final chapter in his storied rugby career. We’re heard that before though, haven’t we?

“I’m so happy to be involved with a great bunch of lads that has set the foundations for future success for UAE rugby,” said the prop, who first earned international recognition for his adopted nation in 2011 when he attended trials and made Bruce Birtwistle’s Asian Five Nations squad.

The UAE celebrate their return to the ARC's Division I.

The UAE celebrate their return to the ARC’s Division I.

“For myself I just wish I was 10 years younger as this is a special group of players. Unfortunately for me, my time has come to an end and I can look back on my time with pride at what I’ve achieved. I’m sure, given the talent in the squad, they can go on and be successful in Division I.”

Twenty seven caps, three tries and two yellow cards during eight years pulling on the falcon-emblazoned green, white, red and black jersey. Jones-Griffiths may not have enjoyed such a richly random international career in the Middle East had he been honest with selectors back in 2011.

A career back-row forward, he lied and told coaches at those trials he was a prop as he thought he had a better shot at making the squad in the front row.

He worked hard to adapt his game and thrived, becoming a mobile, ball-carrying front row. ‘Mr Versatility’ has since gone on to slot in consistent performances, even reliable enough to come in and hold down a starting spot at Quins this season approaching his 40s, putting his hand up when perhaps others would have stayed at home on the sofa.

“I did a favour for Mike (McFarlane, Quins head coach who departed midway through the season) as he said he had some front row cover coming in,” said Griffiths.

“It didn’t happen and I ended up playing the full season. My body felt good and felt I was told I was well enough so I made myself available (for the UAE).”

He was Perelini’s first pick for the Guam and Thailand games in two easy wins. After crushing Guam in their semi-final clash on Wednesday, they sauntered to a 50-12 triumph over Thailand on Saturday, clambering back into Division I after they were relegated a year ago when the UAE Rugby Federation decided not to send a team to the 2018 ARC.

The UAE were home and dry by half-time as they led 45-0. Thailand responded, winning the second half 12-7, but the job had been done in the first 40 minutes by arguably the strongest UAE side in the nation’s fledgling existence.

“It was a great game,” added Jones-Griffiths. “We stuck to our structures and backed our game plan. It was difficult to approach the second half given the lead we built but we played in the right areas and got over the line.”

So, has the final page of this riveting read really been turned? Stay tuned.

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UAE earn promotion to Asia Rugby Championship Division I with convincing Thailand win

Matt Jones 18/05/2019
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The UAE emphatically sealed a return to the second tier of Asia Rugby after they trounced hosts Thailand 50-12 in Hua Hin.

After a monstrous 82-7 win in their play-off with Guam on Wednesday, Apollo Perelini’s side stormed into a 45-0 half-time lead over the Asia Rugby Championship Division II tournament hosts.

Thailand made a fist of things after the break – outscoring Perelini’s men 12-5 – but the visitors were in cruise control and earned promotion back to Division I, which they had been relegated from after deciding not to participate in the ARC in 2018.

Contests between these two have been close in recent years across various formats of the game, but the UAE are a formidable beast these days as more and more expatriate talents become eligible for residency.

Two of them barrelled over for a brace of tries to put the UAE 26-0 ahead after half an hour. Dubai Exiles lock Stephen Ferguson drove over after three minutes to set the tone.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ Fijian centre Kinivilame Natuna then crashed over after a possible intercept on their own tryline was turned over by the UAE. The former Al Ain Amblers man went over again following good work from Jebel Ali Dragons’ utility back Matt Richards and the Thailand scrum was then totally manhandled as the UAE forced another turnover which led to Ferguson’s second try.

Richards then turned the screw as he finished off excellent work from Matt Mills who trundled through the Thai midfield, Richards was on the shoulder to finish it off.

It was turning into a rout and an unkind bounce off their own lineout allowed Jaen Botes to rumble through for a score out wide to follow up his hat-trick from the Guam game. And there was time for a seventh score on the stroke of half-time, Richards going over for his second.

It was a case of job done in the second half as the UAE took their foot off the gas, although Thailand also deserve credit for digging in.

They hit back nine minutes after the break with a converted score to make it 45-7. The UAE hit right back when Luke Stevenson – who’d put in a masterful display from the tee with five of his side’s first half tries converted, some from out wide – was teed up for an easy score by Daniel Perry.

Thailand scored a second, and the game’s final, try from a lineout. The UAE had the last word, however, hoisting the Division II title aloft to crown their return to the continental stage in style.

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