Spirit of confidence buoys focused netballers

FOR netball veteran Premila Hirubalan, gold at this year's SEA Games would erase the pain of a defeat almost 14 years ago.

Then, at the 2001 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, highly-fancied Singapore crashed 42-53 to hosts and close rivals Malaysia in the gold-medal match.

Of that netball team, Hirubalan is the lone remaining active player, and the 32-year-old still feels the hurt from the stinging defeat.

"Going into the finals, we were very excited, and thought we had a good chance since we had beaten Malaysia in the group stage, and then we lost, so that was heart-breaking," said the goalkeeper. She has been capped 97 times for Singapore - the most in the current squad.

Since 2001, netball has not featured at the biennial Games but is back this year. And, once again, Singapore are favourites for the gold, having won last year's Asian Championships on home soil, beating Sri Lanka 59-41 in the final.

The sport has seen steady growth and recent successes in Asia have helped build a strong base of players and supporters too.

Said national captain Micky Lin: "We used to have a lot of schoolgirls, which was the main netball fan base.

"Then, we saw more families and now we are seeing guys watching the games as well."

Lin, 29, is aware that expectations are higher than ever before but aims to keep the team grounded and focused on the main task at hand - to net that elusive gold.

With the exception of Hirubalan, all the players are making their Games debut. So the onus is on the more experienced members of the team to guide the younger ones.

Of the five other participating teams at the Games, Malaysia remain the major hurdle in Singapore's quest for gold.

However, national coach Ruth Aitken, who guided her native New Zealand to triumphs at the 2003 World Championships and the 2006 and 2010 Commonwealth Games, prefers her team to focus on their own level of performance.

She said: "We're not really aware of the other teams... but the thing is to not predict too much, and teach the players to respect every opposing team they're up against and play really well for themselves, the team and their country."

Confidence is oozing through the team, as wing attack Kimberly Lim, nicknamed the "pocket rocket" by Aitken for her speed and short frame, can attest to.

Said the 20-year-old: "We are really confident about our abilities, and what we can bring to the game.

"So, for me, I'm confident we can bring back gold for Singapore."

Lim's explosiveness will be vital in creating scoring chances for shooter Charmaine Soh while Hirubalan and Lin will be tasked with shutting out the opposition.

Aitken's game plan is simple: "We're a team that's really fit and quick so we'll use our pace, and move the ball quickly."

For Hirubalan, this Games could be her last but she is staying mum about her future until after the Games, with the Netball World Cup to be held in Sydney in August.

Nevertheless, she is determined to put to bed the disappointment of 14 years ago.

"The last remaining ambition for me would be the SEA Games.

"If we can push through and win the gold at home, it would be fantastic," she said.

isaacneo@sph.com.sg


Netball

GOLD MEDAL ON OFFER: 1

Asian champions Singapore are favourites to clinch gold on home soil but rivals Malaysia, who finished third at the Asian Championships last year, will be hoping to cause an upset.

WATCH OUT FOR: Charmaine Soh

The 25-year-old sharpshooter will be depended upon to score the goals to propel Singapore into the final.

TEAM SINGAPORE

  • Micky Lin (captain)
  • Chen Huifen (co-vice captain)
  • Nurul Baizura (co-vice captain)
  • Ang Shi Qi
  • Charmaine Soh
  • Chen Lili
  • Yasmin Ho
  • Kimberly Lim
  • Pamela Liew
  • Premila Hirubalan
  • Shelby Koh
  • Shina Teo