New blood throws bowlers a lifeline

AS RECENTLY as two years ago, petanque in Singapore was gasping towards its final breath.

The national team were barely active since 2009, with weekly training seeing fewer than 10 players at the courts behind Toa Payoh Sports Hall.

They also did not wear national-team attire, simply because none was made.

And only those who could afford the travelling costs of representing the country in competitions were allowed to fly the flag.

Despite winning a total of three SEA Games bronzes in 2005 and 2007, Sports Boules Singapore - petanque's national sports association - was close to pulling the plug on the game in 2013.

Yet, thanks to the popularity of the sport in this region, it has stayed on as one of the 36 sports at next month's Singapore SEA Games - throwing the almost forgotten sport a lifeline.

Said Anthony Ho, president of Sports Boules Singapore: "We will not get a better platform to show why we should still matter and can compete against the elites from Thailand and Indonesia."

The 41-year-old director of Cogito Language Centre, who took over the presidency two years ago, ramped up training to thrice weekly and provided uniforms for the national players.

The committee sourced for sponsorships from adidas, FBT, Sportslink and Kamadif and received more than $10,000, to complement the annual funding (of under $100,000) they receive from Sport Singapore.

Within a year, a Games selection squad of 20 was formed, with nine making the cut.

To polish their skills, Thailand's Dumrong Boonrowd, the former coach of Malaysia's Games squad, was roped in.

By the time the squad were confirmed last December, Singapore had already participated in competitions in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as undergone two training stints in Thailand.

They bagged five golds, two silvers and eight bronzes from events such as last June's Pan Pacific Championships, November's Asian Beach Games and April's South-east Asia Petanque Association (Seapa) Championships.

At the SEA Games, Singapore's petanque hopefuls are targeting at least a gold and a silver at the Padang.

Asian Beach Games and Seapa petanque champion Cheng Zhi Ming, 20, and Goh Wee Teck, 25, are the nation's best hopes.

Nur Izzati Ismail, who won a bronze at the 2007 Korat Games at the age of 12, could also find herself on the winners' podium. The trio were discovered by Vicki Heo, 50, when she taught them in Greenridge Primary School.

Said the 50-year-old teacher from Marymount Convent: "I'm very satisfied to see how they have grown from casual to competitive players and now have the chance to do the country and local petanque community proud with the support we have now."

But men's captain Cheng is under no illusions about facing medal favourites Thailand and Laos.

He said: "We just want to show that we can perform well against the other powerhouses like Thailand and Laos with the training programme and support that we receive."

Nevertheless, compared with the sport's moribund situation two years ago, Singapore's petanque team have already done much to share the same playing surface as the Asean giants.

ljeremy@sph.com.sg