They may have lost their influential coach but ambitions remain “exactly the same” for Bahrain next season – they are targeting West Asia Premiership glory, and even Dubai Sevens success too.
Welshman Louie Tonkin revitalised the sleepy west Asia nation during his three-year tenure, leading them to the West Asia Premiership title last season – a third trophy in as many years.
And even though he has since departed – taking up a position within Gallagher Premiership side Exeter Chiefs’ academy – it does not mean it is back to the drawing board for Bahrain, according to new assistant and forwards coach Lindsey Gibson.
“Our aim for the season has got to be exactly the same. I don’t care what team you are, you go into the season with the ambition of wanting to win, and that doesn’t change,” said the influential Scotsman, who has been a key part of the playing staff under Tonkin.
The 29-year-old hooker, who will assist another influential player in Adam Wallace, who replaces Tonkin as head coach, knows rivals will see the departure of the Welshman as a sign Bahrain are weakened. But after ascending to the top spot in west Asia, he says the club have no plans to relinquish it.
He added: “If you fall short of achieving that then you pick out the successes you’ve had along the way. We’ve had good progress over the last few years and now we’re in the position where everyone wants to take us off the top of the league.
“(Dubai) Exiles pushed us really close (Bahrain beat them 23-21 in the WAP play-off final) and (Jebel Ali) Dragons and (Abu Dhabi) Quins are never far away. And you know the new team coming into the league (UAE Conference champions Dubai Tigers) will be competitive as well.
“We’ll aim to win the league and the play-offs again, that has to be the aim. We wouldn’t mind a bit of success at the Dubai Sevens too. I’d like to see the boys get to the final.”
Gibson and Wallace are both long-time Bahrain players and have learned under Tonkin since he arrived and transformed the club in the summer of 2016. And Gibson admits the duo will not rip apart the structures Tonkin put in place, while also bringing their own ideas to the table.
“We’re both excited about what we can bring that’s slightly different,” he added.
“We’re not going to go with the exact same playbook although we’re not going to rip it up and start again either.
“Louie has been massive for us and we’ve learnt a massive amount off him over the last three years, me in-particular as I work in the office with him on a day to day basis, so I’ve picked his brains over that time because he’s such a smart coach.
“You could always tell he’d go on to make that next step. As with anyone who gets into coaching though you’ve always got your own ideas and things you want to try so we’ll look to make slight changes and, if they work, happy days. If they don’t, you live and learn.”
In addition to Wallace and Gibson, Tom Hanratty will continue in his role as the team manager while Alana McConalogue comes on board as strength and conditioning coach.
It is a role Gibson is now relishing ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, but he admits he wasn’t keen at all when Tonkin first suggested the idea.
“To be honest I wasn’t too happy with the idea when it was first put to me, in fact I flat out refused when Louie suggested it,” said Gibson.
“’No chance I’m coaching yet, I’m not ready for it’. I wasn’t ready to hang up the boots yet. But he said I wouldn’t have to do that, I could take on the role Wallace has had for the last few years. Being assistant coach and captain figure.
“I’ve kind of been doing it anyway so it’s not an issue. Now, I’m quite excited to see what I can bring.
“It’s definitely the best way forward for the club I think. I took convincing because of my inexperience in coaching adult rugby, but now I’ve come round and I’m quite excited about it.
“Me and Wallace both know the squad and it’s an exciting squad of boys. Bringing someone else in could have upset them if he’s not the right candidate or the right fit.
“So it’s the best way forward. And we have a coaching team in place here now, which is something Louie pushed for. Now we have the four of us working together which will make things a lot easier.”
Bahrain’s pre-season has unofficially started, with the players remaining out running and in the gym, but Gibson says they will be back on the pitch properly the first week in August as they build towards defending their Western Clubs Champions League title in September.
They will face UAE Premiership champions Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Sri Lanka’s Kandy.
Bahrain have begun the post-Louie Tonkin era by naming two of his closest allies as the men to take the west Asia champions forward.
Captain and long-serving player Adam Wallace has been named the club’s head coach, while hooker Lindsey Gibson – another club stalwart – is the new assistant and forwards coach.
Tom Hanratty will continue in his role as the team manager and Alana McConalogue will come on board as strength and conditioning coach.
“Following a rigorous recruitment process which saw 12 candidates with a wide variety of experience in coaching considered, we are pleased to announce the appointment of Adam Wallace as our new first team coach,” the club announced via its social media channels on Tuesday.
“In the last three years Adam has made an enormous impact as first team captain and as assistant coach to Louie Tonkin. Adam will be supported by Lindsey Gibson, who will also take on many of Louie’s other responsibilities in the sports department for the club.
“Tom Hanratty will continue in his invaluable supporting role as team manager and Alana McConalogue will join as strength and conditioning coach.”
The club had been in the process of scouting for a new coach after Tonkin left his role following a momentous three years in which he had transformed the club from Gulf rugby also-rans to titans of the region.
He led Bahrain to the West Asia Premiership and West Asia Cup double this term – their third and fourth trophies in his three-year spell. Prior to a maiden West Asia Cup success of 2017/18, Bahrain had gone eight years without lifting a piece of silverware.
Tonkin’s tenure – he returned home and started a new role with Exeter Chiefs’ academy last week – was bookended by the double, leading Bahrain to a dominant 2018/19 campaign in which they lost just one of 17 games.
And he has endorsed his replacements. “It’s really exciting to see the club invest in these great young people, all with bright futures in coaching and management,” said Tonkin in a statement released by the club.
“Adam is the right man to take rugby forward in this club. He’s been coaching with me for the last three years and will ensure a seamless transition.
“He is already a distinguished leader among the players’ group, he has a huge future in coaching; this will be a great step for his development and the team.”
In regards to the coaching team as a whole, the Welshman added: “For any coach to be successful, a strong support team is essential. Getting the right balance of professionalism and trust is important.
“Tom, Lindsey and Alana already have great relationships with each other and with Adam. Each will bring professionalism to the team in their own unique way.”
The new Gulf rugby season will kick off in September with the Western Clubs Champions League competition taking place between reigning champions Bahrain, as well as UAE Premiership champion Abu Dhabi Harlequins and Sri Lanka’s Kandy.
Returning from a 12-month exile proves there is a deep sense of community spirit and passion coursing through the veins of people associated with Sharjah Wanderers.
That is the message being delivered by new chairman Chris Paton, one of the club’s most senior players, who admits Wanderers will always hold a special place in his heart.
Paton has played for a club located in the shadow of the giant that has become Dubai – but one that has been around for longer than all but one of the city’s myriad other teams – for a decade.
At least it would have been a decade had Wanderers not decided to pull their senior men’s team out of competition on the eve of the 2018/19 season due to dwindling player numbers.
They hoped, however, it would only be temporary. And the good news that Sharjah would be back for 2019/20 was announced via the club’s Instagram account less than two weeks ago.
“When I came over I planned to only stay for two years and I’m still here. The club’s a big part of that and the friends that have come with it,” admitted 32-year-old Paton, who will replace long-serving Shane Breen as chairman.
“It’s been quite a journey but it’s been great fun and I can’t wait to carry it on.”
If it wasn’t obvious already, the Dubai Knights Eagles merger between Dubai Eagles and Arabian Knights, announced at the end of last month, proves survival is a big issue for many UAE rugby clubs.
It always has been for an amateur sport built on expatriate players whose sporting passion nevertheless comes second to the main reason they’re here in the Emirates – employment.
But Paton believes there is something special about Sharjah, one of the UAE’s oldest clubs, who were established in 1977 – only Dubai Exiles and Abu Dhabi Harlequins are older.
“There’s definitely a big community spirit at the club,” added Paton, the back rower who still envisions being required on as well as off the field next season.
“The fact everyone makes the effort to train wherever we can and play under the circumstances – playing in all sorts of positions and guys coming from the vets – proves that.
“You can tell how people feel about the club just by how relatively quick and easy this has been to get back together. We’ve got a lot of guys involved already, who love the club and want to help get it back to where it belongs.”
Where Sharjah feel they belong is in the UAE’s second tier Conference, a division they were crowned champions of just four seasons ago, while they reached the final again in 2017/18, losing to Dubai Tigers.
They will most likely be reinstated to the Conference although Paton admits he is still waiting for concrete confirmation off the UAE Rugby Federation.
Long term, the club has ambitions to be challenging for titles again, although Wanderers are keeping their aims a little lower in the short term.
“If we can get a decent 22 out on the first day that will be a win in itself,” admitted Paton.
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Our Men’s team are returning for the 2019/20 season! If you want to help bring back one of the oldest clubs in the UAE please contact us here or our new Chairman, Chris Paton (details in post). We will be training at @kings_albarsha in Dubai . . . . . @sharjahwanderers #rugby #mensrugby #rugbyunion #gulfrugby #uaerugby #sharjahwanderers #sharjahrugby #swrfc #wandies #redandblack #weareback
“But a lot of our drive is we used to be one of the teams competing for the Conference each year and I think we’d like to be doing that again. But we’re realistic, it’s not necessarily going to be straight back in at the top. We’ll see what state we’re in when we get back in August.”
Pre-season will start on August 27, taking place on Tuesday evenings from 7.30pm at King’s School Al Barsha, coinciding with the return of many people from their summer holidays.
Paton revealed former Sharjah star Isaac Porter is returning to the club after spending 2018/19 with Eagles, a campaign which ended with international recognition. The Irishman was part of Apollo Perelini’s UAE side that earned promotion back to Asia Rugby’s Division I after victories over Guam and Thailand.
He will be returning to Sharjah from Eagles along with Shane Fowley and Paddy Barcoe.
“Isaac tapped me up, he’s been one of the driving forces behind getting the club back together, it hit everyone pretty hard last year,” added Paton.
“It’s all turned around though and everyone’s mad keen to get back up and running again. Everyone, bar one or two who were here previously, are back involved and there’s a few who’ve moved clubs who are sticking with those clubs, and that’s fine.
“But we’ve got five or six new players which is a good start, hopefully we get a few more. Isacc was keen to be back involved even though he’s missing the first half of the season through injury.”