The 2019-20 rugby season will go down as a most memorable campaign for a variety of reasons but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that Bahrain managed to retain the West Asia Premiership title for the first time in many years.
The departure of Louie Tonkin was always going to leave a considerable hole to fill but the new-look management team set about their business with all the naïve optimism you could expect. The weather conditions and the traditional drip-feed of new and returning players to pre-season training in various shapes and sizes after the summer break meant the opening weeks were as tough as ever but with new conditioning coach, Alana McConalogue, calling the shots, the squad was fitter than ever by the end of the first training block. Off the field, things didn’t quite go to plan as the cancellation of what was due to be the final Western Clubs Champions League (WCCL) at the 11th hour denied the opportunity for more silverware and left the club in a last-minute panic to secure pre-season fixtures.
Thankfully, our friends from Abu Dhabi Harlequins were keen to fulfil the scheduled WCCL fixture and the lads were delighted to get back on the pitch in mid-September. Despite a distinct pre-season feel to proceedings, there was plenty of physicality on display and unfortunately, the ever-exuberant Jack Parry suffered a fractured forearm in a tackle that would rule him out of the first half of the season. Otherwise, it was a useful blow-out for the new-look squad, with recent additions, Daniel Anae, Daniel Parete, Luke Waller, Steven Komene and Nika Morehu all slotting in well; Rhys Fitzgerald, Graham Bishop and Ross Preedy making welcome returns after missing much of the previous season, and Kyle Nair, Paddy Gilbert and Saul Piper making the step up from the Select XV.
The next port of call was a hastily-arranged first ever fixture against a Cyprus League Select XV in Limassol and, although the game itself was more one-sided than anyone would have liked, the trip proved hugely valuable for the squad, with cancelled flights, nightmare logistics, old school changing facilities and the rest thrown in for good measure. Greg Heath turned in a man-of-the-match performance on the wing, while there was another debutant in Jay Paila, who featured off the bench having only landed in Bahrain 48 hours before the game. A special mention for the traveling Bahrain supporters, the Bell family, who punched above their weight in terms of the level of noise from the stand.
That brief European excursion left little time to rest up ahead of the first West Asia Premiership (WAP) outing of the season, as the squad made another maiden journey, this time to league new boys, Dubai Tigers. With Bahrain sporting their dashing new alternative white kit, the grizzled home pack, including former Italy international, Aaron Persico, were certainly up for this one and gave as good as they got for much of a tightly-fought first half, in which Luke Waller and Nika Morehu both opened their Bahrain accounts, with the former injuring himself in the process of scoring. The boot of James Whittingham kept Tigers at bay before scores from Alastair Crombie and a penalty try settled the contest and secured the bonus point, and then the returning Jack Phillips capped off a 39-5 win.
The first home game of the season saw the revamped Dubai Knights Eagles make the trip to Saar but this one wasn’t initially the one-way traffic some had predicted either, as the visitors frustrated their much-vaunted hosts and didn’t allow them to stamp their authority on another scrappy opening half. That said, tries from fan favourite, Tommy Booth, skipper, Lindsey Gibson and scrum-half Jay Paila on his full debut, had Bahrain in the ascendency at the break and Daniel Anae’s burst just a couple of minutes into the second half brought up the bonus point. It wasn’t until the final quarter that Bahrain really cut loose however and in the end, tries from Jack Phillips and Greg Heath – with the last play of the game – either side of a brace from the returning Elliot Behan put some gloss on the 52-3 score-line.
Next up was the first true test of Bahrain’s title-retaining credentials and the latest instalment of the league’s most eagerly anticipated match-up of recent seasons, away to Dubai Exiles. Things followed a similar pattern to many of the recent encounters between the same two sides, with early scores traded, before a try against the run of play gave home side the upper hand heading into the break. Things were delicately poised approaching the final stages but with the Exiles scrum in the ascendency against a depleted Bahrain pack, the hosts conjured their third try of the evening with less than five minutes left on the clock. The Exiles were good value for the win and, in possession deep inside the Bahrain 22, even sniffed the chance of a bonus point but remarkably, Bahrain conjured a turnover and a try at the other end from Leon Mauer from the final passage of play to salvage a losing bonus point at 21-15, that ultimately proved decisive in the climax to the season.
Bahrain bounced back in style two weeks later with a superb all-round performance to defeat in-form Dubai Hurricanes in Saar, with a great team try finished off by Dai Evans the pick of the bunch to get things rolling. Jack Phillips’ try and the boot of Ross Preedy inflicted further damage on Canes, before Tommy Booth’s second-half score gave Bahrain a bit of breathing space, and another late touchdown from Mauer secured the all-important bonus point in a 35-9 win. Injuries to talismanic skipper Lindsey Gibson and his trusty sidekick Evans took the shine off what was otherwise a great day at the office, as Aidan Ascott marked his club debut off the bench after a nightmare injury, and Carlton Marshall made his first senior appearance in Bahrain colours following a nine-year hiatus.
With Evans and James Whittingham both ruled out through injury, head coach Adam Wallace was seemingly left with no choice but to start himself in the centre away to Abu Dhabi Harlequins, where Gibson took over the coaching reigns in what marked the end of a remarkable run of consecutive starts stretching over five seasons. Defence was certainly not the winner on this occasion, with both sides offering up a series of chances, and Bahrain trailed to two quick-fire tries in the opening minutes. Jack Phillips pegged one back when he caught the Quins asleep at a penalty and the impressive Daniel Parete and Nika Morehu then got in on the act before Mauer yet again got the all-important fourth just before half-time. Amazingly, Bahrain added only a single penalty during a disappointing second period in which they lost the services of both Elliot Behan and Tommy Booth to injury, as well as three players to the sin-bin. Quins meanwhile, racked up a four-try bonus point of their own and will have been disappointed to have finished on the losing end of a 24-32 scoreline.
Arguably Bahrain’s most clinical performance of the season came in the final round of the league before the winter break away to 2018 league champions, Jebel Ali Dragons. Greg Heath’s early try got the scoreboard ticking over and it didn’t get much of a break for the rest of the afternoon, as the two sides produced 11 tries between them. A brace from Jordan Viggers and a fourth try in as many games from Mauer had the bonus point in the bag at the half-time break but the Dragons were still in the hunt at that point. The visitors ripped loose in the second half however, with tries from Mauer, James Whittingham, Jay Paila, Graham Bishop and a penalty try. They finished the 14-61 victory in fine style, with a seasonal cameo from Callan Hope at number eight and farewell appearances for club stalwarts, Calrton Marshall and Rich Ryan.
The annual pilgrimage to the Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens took centre stage in December, where the first team produced a memorable series of performances in making it to the Gulf Men’s Final for the first time since the tournament moved to its new home in 2008. With a squad shorn of experienced exponents Deina Morete, Alastair Crombie, Steven Komene, Leon Mauer and Dai Evans, teenager, Kyle Nair, veteran Vai Mahutariki and newcomer Kyran Odendaal all stepped up for their first senior competitive action in Bahrain colours. Never one to miss an opportunity, Adam Wallace also found room for himself in the 12-strong squad and so his old mucker Crombie took over the coaching duties for the weekend, showing his worth by appointing the enigmatic Jack Phillips as captain for the weekend.
With Phillips and the impressive Odendaal to the fore, Bahrain saw off Dubai Tigers IIs in their opening group game before a superb defensive effort provided the backbone for an upset over reigning champions, Dubai Hurricanes, and they rounded off the group stage with a comfortable victory over 2017 winners, Dubai Exiles. The Knights Eagles were dispatched with relative ease in the quarter-final before another cagey affair with Quins saw Bahrain come out the right side of a 26-21 victory, to set up a rematch with Hurricanes in the grand final. Cheered on by the ever-vocal Bahrain supporters on the main pitch, Phillips proudly led the team dance (the hokey-cokey) but it wasn’t enough on this occasion as Canes’ experience on the big stage was apparent as they scored two quick tries. Remarkably, that was the first time over the course of the weekend that Bahrain had gone behind and that was always going to be a dangerous proposition against a side as well-drilled as the ‘Canes, who deservedly ran out as 26-10 winners.
There was disappointment for the Bahrain squad before the first match of the new year as vice-captain Elliot Behan was ruled out for an extended period after suffering a horror knee injury in a training drill. On Tigers’ debut trip to Bahrain, the hosts were wary as to the task at hand, following their previous meeting earlier in the season, and unfortunately for the visitors, the reigning champions picked up where they had left off against the Dragons, with another clinical showing. Lindsey Gibson was back to lead the team impressively, despite having undergone knee surgery eight weeks previously, as Nika Morehu and Tommy Booth grabbed the headlines with a brace apiece, to go with tries from Greg Heath, Jack Phillips, James Whittingham – causing another injury in the act of scoring, Jordan Viggers and Aled Morris, in a 61-0 rout.
The visit to Dubai Knights Eagles the following week allowed for some squad rotation, as Aidan Ascott and Vai Mahutariki deservedly earned their first starts for the club, while Steven Komene and Deina Morete marked their returns from injury but in reality, the game was something of a mismatch from the early stages. Dai Evans’ try with relative easy marked the opening of the flood gates, as Komene (2), Morehu (2), Oli Sanson, Morris, Rhys Fitzgerald and Graham Bishop all crossed, while Heath incredibly managed four tries in just 45 minutes on the field. Although the Knights Eagles claimed a consolation score in the second half, with the boots of Preedy, Komene and even Sanson all contributing to a 7-92 drubbing, it was a difficult day at the office to say the least.
The squad was back on the road to Dubai the following week for a key clash against a Hurricanes outfit pushing for a place in the top two and it proved an altogether different task. Jordan Viggers got the opening score of the game from the base of a dominant five-metre scrum before the ‘Canes responded with a penalty and when Dai Evans and then Jack Phillips crossed for further tries, it appeared like this one would follow a familiar pattern. The hosts hit back with two quick-fire tries of their own however to leave them trailing 15-19 at half-time. Bahrain upped their intensity in the second half though and a brace apiece for man-of-the-match Luke Waller and Lindsey Gibson put the game beyond reach, before Heath and Viggers rounded out a 20-55 win.
A busy month concluded with the first competitive outing of the season for the Bahrain Select XV and a first meeting of any kind for three seasons between Bahrain and our old friends from Doha RFC in the neutral setting of Muscat. The fact that Doha have been frozen out of the West Asia Premiership since the political blockade of 2017 meant they had no shortage of motivation and the Qatari outfit raced into an early lead with four first-half tries to one from Joel Lewis in response. Bahrain were much-improved after the break, with the returning Mark Burnell and second row partner Ascott to the fore, and manged to outscore their opponents through tries from Kyran Odendaal and Matt McKee, but it wasn’t enough and they came up short by 38-19.
February kicked off with a bang with the visit of Dubai Exiles, whose surprise home defeat to Quins in the previous round brought Bahrain to the verge claiming home advantage for the title decider. There was added intrigue with a late change to a Saturday kick-off, as well as a first ever visit to the club by Bahrain Olympic Committee Chairman, His Highness Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Ross Preedy settled the on-field nerves with an early penalty before Steven Komene sniped from the base of a ruck for a great individual try. Jack Phillips then crossed in his familiar corner, before Jordan Viggers got on the end of a lovely touch from skipper, Lindsey Gibson, later in the first half. Replacement Aled Morris rounded off a superb score on the right hand side to bring up the bonus point but fellow sub Mark Burnell had a day to forget as he suffered a dislocated shoulder in his first contribution of the season after returning from a long-term knee injury. Phillips put the icing on an emphatic 41-0 win with a fifth try late on and what proved to the last score of Bahrain’s WAP campaign.
A quick turnaround for the Select XV saw them travel to Kuwait on Valentine’s Day when, despite a much-changed side, there was still plenty of first XV experience on show, with Jack Parry, Daniel Anae, Aled Morris and Deina Morete all gaining much-needed game time. In the end, that experience proved too much for a gamely home side, with Anae bagging four tries from the unfamiliar position of hooker, and Rory Drummond, Daniel Parete and Colin Browne also crossing.
A welcome weekend off provided the ideal build-up to the penultimate WAP fixture against Abu Dhabi Harlequins and the first of a potential run of five consecutive home games for the first/Select XV in an exciting climax to the season. Monday’s training was sharp and with a number of players returning to form and fitness ahead of the business end of the season, that evening’s selection meeting took even longer than usual. Unfortunately, that day also witnessed the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Bahrain and by the next morning, some flights to and from the UAE had been shut down. With concerns of further restrictions growing, the league management took the decision to postpone the fixture to a date in March.
From there, the meeting with Jebel Ali Dragons the following week was always in doubt, but things escalated quickly and by the following Wednesday, all remaining league fixtures had been cancelled and declared 0-0 draws. In a bizarre sequence of events, the Exiles-Tigers game on the last weekend in February had gone ahead, while Exiles’ meeting with Knights Eagles in the final round had already been forfeited by their opponents, meaning the only outstanding fixtures were Bahrain’s final two home games. With these games being declared draws, Bahrain earned two points for each and edged out their closest rivals by a single point for top spot. The feint hopes of a season finale were kept alive by an initial plan to shift the showpiece decider to April but, after much deliberation and discussion, and with so much uncertainty going forward, the league management eventually took the decision to award the championship to Bahrain.
|BRFC products||5 (A Dalgarno, M McKee, R Ryan, P Gilbert, M Burnell)|
|James Whittingham||Earned starts at fly-half, centre and full-back|
|Steven Komene||Started at scrum-half and full-back, also featured at fly-half|
|Nika Morehu||Shared starts between centre and wing, and provided back-row injury cover|
|Tommy Booth||Packed down in all three rows of the scrum versus Tigers away|
|Aled Morris||Packed down in all three rows of the scrum over the course of the season|
|Adam Wallace||Only two appearances – 1 x start at centre, 1 x sub back row|
|Nika Morehu||20 years, five days – Tigers versus Bahrain, Oct 2019|
|Vai Mahutariki||39 years, 353 days – Knights Eagles versus Bahrain, Jan 2020|