Uphill task for Rio qualifiers but S'pore 7s team upbeat

Hooker Zaki Mahmood, 29, and winger Bronson Ro, 19, jumping at a line-out during the sevens team's final training session on Tuesday, before departing for the Olympic qualifiers in Hong Kong.
Hooker Zaki Mahmood, 29, and winger Bronson Ro, 19, jumping at a line-out during the sevens team's final training session on Tuesday, before departing for the Olympic qualifiers in Hong Kong.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

It seems like Mission Impossible, but a sense of optimism runs through the Singapore men's rugby sevens team as they tackle the 2016 Olympic regional qualifiers this weekend.

To be played over two days at the iconic Hong Kong Stadium, they are grouped with heavyweights Japan, China, South Korea and Chinese Taipei.

The winner of the 10-nation tournament books a spot in Rio next August, when rugby sevens will make its Olympic debut.

The other group features Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Iran, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Japan are heavily fancied for the top spot, bolstered by several players from the 15-a-side outfit who won three out of four group games at the recent Rugby World Cup.

While the Cherry Blossoms are a class apart, Singapore coach Ismail Kadir believes there is little separating the remaining teams as they fight for ranking points.

The Reds themselves are coming off the high of reaching the plate quarter-finals at the Singapore Cricket Club International Sevens last weekend. It was their joint-best performance at the annual showpiece.

They also finished a creditable seventh at the Asia Rugby Sevens Series.

"The younger boys stepped up and answered most of the questions I had - I have a good selection headache," said Ismail, 38, a former national player.

Boasting an average age of 25, just six of the 12-strong squad that left for Hong Kong today were part of the bronze-winning team in June's SEA Games on home soil.

With veterans like Jonathan Lee and Derek Chan retiring after the competition and four others sidelined by other commitments, fresh faces are coming through the ranks.

Ismail picked out 19-year-old winger Bronson Ro as a rising star, impressed with his game sense and ability to exploit his speed to break through tackles.

Singapore captain Daniel Marc Chow, the team's oldest player at 31, called on his team-mates to bring their 'A' game to Hong Kong, targeting a fifth-place finish overall as they prepare to host the inaugural South-east Asian Sevens in April.

He said: "If we stick to our game, we can pull off a few upsets and end the year off on a high."

Singapore's female ruggers are also in action this weekend. The national squad as well as a development side have been invited to compete in the Bangkok International Rugby Sevens.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Uphill task for Rio qualifiers but S'pore 7s team upbeat'. Print Edition | Subscribe