It may appear to be casual, amateur, community rugby, but Andy Cole revealed a painstaking scouring of the globe was undertaken in order to find Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ new director of rugby.
The club had contact with coaches in the United States, Argentina and even New Zealand before finding a permanent replacement for Mike McFarlane, who left midway through last season and was replaced as senior men’s coach by players Craig Nutt and Luke Stevenson as well as Rory Greene on a temporary basis.
Niall Lear is the man tasked with replacing McFarlane full time, with the former Connacht A, Scottish Schools and Scotland Under-18 international throwing himself into his new role just hours after landing in the UAE.
Lear took his first coaching session at Zayed Sports City on Tuesday evening, roughly 12 hours after landing in the UAE capital to start his new life with his young family.
And despite – to the casual observer – the idea that UAE rugby is just a handful of happy-go-lucky expats playing outside of work hours, Quins chairman Cole described the recruitment process as “a nightmare”.
“We’re delighted we’ve got Niall over,” said Cole.
“It’s been a nightmare trying to find someone, it really has. I’ve been interviewing people in the US, Argentina, New Zealand, all over the place.
“It wasn’t easy to find someone to fit in doing the seniors and the juniors, that’s been the challenge. You can find someone good at one or the other, but not able to do both. It’s quite a big ask when you’ve got close to 800 playing members. It’s a big challenge.
“But this guy has got a good pedigree of rugby and has worked in good sporting schools and military schools.
“He’s got that ability to work with kids and he’s got a young family too, his wife has just given birth. For them it’s a long term plan so it will be good for them too. I’m sure he’ll fit in well, he’s got a great personality.”
Previously based in Edinburgh, Lear was house master and rugby coach for the city’s internationally renowned Merchiston Castle School – current Scotland international Fraser Brown is a former pupil.
Lear spent three years there and was previously in the same role at the Queen Victoria Military School in Dunblane.
Lear’s playing achievements include representing Connacht A from 2008- 09. He attended Loughborough University and represented Scottish Schools, Scotland U18s and was part of the Scotland Sevens training squad in 2006/07.
He also represented Rosslyn Park, Glasgow Hawks as well as the Scottish Schools athletics and the Team GB U23 athletics team.
“We’re delighted he’s here,” added Cole, who admits running a club and keeping it thriving in the UAE is a massive challenge each year, especially over the summer.
“We wish him all the best and we’ll look to carry on developing rugby across all age groups – that’s the main aim. And we hope to develop coaches as well as players.
“When you’ve got all these transient people coming and going we’re having to develop new coaches all the time as well as players. It’s not easy out here in the Middle East. People at your home club are always on call but people come and go here so it’s a new challenge every year.”
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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.