Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 August 2019

Few will begrudge Bahrain their place back at the top of Gulf rugby's summit

The team must travel by plane for every away fixture but as their nail-biting win over Dubai Exiles in the West Asia final showed, an entire country is behind its local rugby team

Bahrain players celebrate after beating Dubai Exiles in the final of the West Asia Premiership final. Courtesy Bahrain RFC
Bahrain players celebrate after beating Dubai Exiles in the final of the West Asia Premiership final. Courtesy Bahrain RFC

On Friday afternoon in Saar, Bahrain put a partisan crowd through the emotional wringer before finally confirming what everyone had suspected all season. That they were, in fact, the best club rugby team in this region.

Now they have the trophy to prove it, after their nerve-shredding, 23-21 win over Dubai Exiles in the West Asia Premiership final, followers of Gulf rugby might be wondering two things.

First, what took them so long? And, second, could this be the start of a long spell of dominance by a club that has so much for the rest to envy?

Given the fact they have endured a variety of near misses in recent years, as well as the nature of the win on Friday, Bahrain deserve the chance to celebrate this victory before pondering what comes next.

But there are plenty of reasons for the rest to fear that they might be difficult to keep up with for some time to come.

One glimpse at the club’s admirable Facebook Live broadcast of the final would provide some clues. Primarily, there was that crowd. Hundreds lined the pitch, waving red flags, and even wearing T-shirts specially issued for the match.

West Asia Premiership table

Pos, team, played, won, drawn, lost, points

1. Bahrain 15 14 0 1 68

2. AD Harlequins 15 11 0 4 55

3. Dubai Exiles 15 8 0 7 42

4 Jebel Ali Dragons 15 7 0 8 37

5. Hurricanes 15 5 0 10 31

6. DSC Eagles 15 0 0 15 7

All other clubs in the competition bear the name of the town they are from. Bahrain, by contrast, represent a country. They have the pick of all the players there are in Bahrain – and the supporters, too.

Not that everything is stacked in their favour. Far from it. UAE Premiership teams, for example, at worst have a 90-minute drive along the E11 to away matches. Some days, they only have to check which pitch they are playing on at The Sevens to see whether it is a home fixture or not.

Bahrain, by contrast, have to fly to every away match they play. That must, in part, explain why it has taken one of the most successful clubs in the 40-odd year history of rugby in the region so long to return to the winners’ circle.

And, anyway, the transience of life in the Middle East makes building rugby dynasties virtually impossible.

To prove the point, in the past nine years, seven different clubs have earned the title of West Asia’s No 1 side. Remarkable, bearing in mind the division only involves six teams at present.

Jebel Ali Dragons, winners in 2013 and 2014 were the only side able to defend the title in that time.

Two champion sides – Abu Dhabi Saracens (2015 winners) and Doha (2012) – are no longer even part of the Premiership.

Doha are not involved because of the logistical challenges of travelling there to play. Saracens dropped down a division ahead of this season after problems that threatened the club’s existence, and subsequently finished third in the Conference.

Bahrain’s rise to the top will be appreciated elsewhere. Antagonism – both petty in some cases, and deep-seated in others – does exist between some clubs in this region.

But Bahrain have attracted almost universal goodwill in recent times, which is in large part due to their affable coach, Louie Tonkin.

“When I came in I set up a three-year plan to try to achieve sustainable success,” Tonkin, the Welsh coach, said.

“The aim was to build a model that the club can maintain long after I’m gone. I think we’ve done that, and I’m proud of that.

“The guys that have come in are settled in Bahrain now, and long may it continue. The club and committee have been brilliant in supporting me and my ambitions for rugby here, and I think it’s gone well.”

At least the UAE clubs can console themselves with the fact they have two shots at any XVs silverware per season.

The Exiles, for instance, will be bidding to retain their UAE Premiership crown when they play a play-off semi-final against Dragons in two weeks’ time.

Jacques Benade, their coach, says the hurt felt after the defeat in Bahrain will fuel their challenge.

“We sat down afterwards and were proud of ourselves, but you don’t want to be second,” Benade said.

“It is still awful. We played our best and, yes, we were close. But it is not what we want. We said to remember this feeling.”

Updated: March 10, 2019 03:10 PM

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