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The search is on for a successor to the most successful coach in Bahrain rugby history after one of Britain’s top teams snaffled up the talents of Louie Tonkin.
Premiership club Exeter Chiefs, who finished top of the table last season but were narrowly beaten by Saracens in the play-off final of rugby union’s highest tier, have appointed the Welshman as their senior academy coach and he will work in a transition role between the academy and the first team.
The coach who follows in his footsteps has some giant boots to fill. Tonkin took over as director of rugby at the Bahrain Rugby Football Club three summers ago and transformed the team’s fortunes from talented but ill-disciplined underachievers to all-conquering champions of the region.
He said: “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my three years in Bahrain and I’m absolutely gutted to be leaving as I was originally planning on a five or six year stint.
“However, I just couldn’t turn this opportunity down. I’ve always said from the start that I wanted to get into the professional game and push on with my career. To be a coach for one of the finest teams in club rugby is a dream come true.
“I feel like I was inherited into a family here. I’m delighted with the progression of the rugby programme in Bahrain and if I’m to leave on a good note, it’s that we took a clean sweep of trophies in the season just gone!
“There’s been countless people involved in this journey, it’s in no way just me. The players are amazing and have bought in fully to the team ethos, the team management who have supported me and, last but not least, the club itself and fans who have really pushed us over the line on numerous occasions.
“We regularly get 1,000 fans at games now, so we have a legacy both on and off the field. It hasn’t sunk in that I’m leaving yet … I think it only will when I’m stood in the pouring rain in a few weeks’ time!”
Tonkin’s influence on Bahrain rugby cannot be overstated.
His professional approach saw a staggering renaissance in the team’s fortunes as they became one of the strongest outfits in the region.
Despite being ravaged by four season-ending injuries early on, Tonkin guided Bahrain to third place in the West Asia Premiership, before narrowly being defeated by Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the play-off final in his first season.
The year after, the 36-year-old again guided the kingdom to third place in the Premiership but this time the men in red defeated Dubai Exiles to claim the West Asia Cup.
However, it is the legendary 2018-19 season which the friendly giant - whose coaching career began as the head coach at Carmarthen Quins RFC and Pontypool RFC before becoming the head of rugby at Cardiff University - will be remembered for long after he’s gone.
The season started in style back in September as they claimed the Asia Rugby Western Clubs Champions League by defeating the Abu Dhabi Harlequins in front of the famous ‘Red Wall’.
The team then dominated the Premiership by winning 14 of 15 games before a nervy, narrow victory over Dubai Exiles in the West Asia Cup saw them claim a hat-trick and prove themselves as the dominant force in the continent’s western region.
It’s a tough act to follow for the next man in charge, but the process is already underway with the rugby club’s committee and Tonkin himself overseeing applicants and conducting interviews.
Rugby club chairman Mike Cunningham lavished praised on Tonkin whilst assuring fans that the club’s success will not stop with his departure.
“In the three years since he’s been here, Tonkin has been the driving force behind the resurgence of rugby in Bahrain,” he explained.
“Not only has he reversed the fortunes of the first team, but the select team as well and has been essential in keeping the second-tier Gulf Conference going and giving fringe players regular experience and game time.
“He’s well-liked and respected as a coach by all the members, players and management team. We’re hugely disappointed to lose him, but we’re also extremely happy and proud that he’s gone to such a big role. He deserves it.
“As for what’s next … we’ve had interest from a number of high calibre coaches and we brought one out last week to have a look at the club and another is coming next week, whilst we’ve held a number of Skype interviews.
“No decision has been made yet and we are keeping candidates confidential, but rest assured that we want to get someone in as soon as possible to organise and prepare for the defence of our crowns.”
The final farewell for Tonkin will take place tomorrow at the rugby club. Former England and Lions prop forward Gareth Chilcott, right, will be in the kingdom for a speaker’s dinner and it will double as an opportunity for friends, fans and team members to give Tonkin a proper send-off.
As club chairman Mike Cunningham puts it: “So many people wanted to do something major for him to say goodbye, so much so that he could have spent the next six months going to barbecues and still not see everyone!”
Indeed, there are few figures in Bahrain sport that deserve a toast as much as Tonkin. His legacy on the field in terms of success and professionalism has been more than matched off it with thousands of fans, many of whom had no prior interest in rugby, creating the best atmosphere in the Gulf and many kids taking up rugby on the back of the swell in support and popularity.
Regular supporters, including GulfWeekly, wish Louie Tonkin well and the best of luck to his successor. He might need it!