What’s next for rugby in Singapore

Player progression: Stronger pathway planned for rugby

An Oldham Blue player is tackled by a Bedok Kings opponent in a recent Championship match. The Singapore Rugby Union aims to strengthen the talent pipeline by formalising relationships between senior clubs in the Premiership and Championship, junior
An Oldham Blue player is tackled by a Bedok Kings opponent in a recent Championship match. The Singapore Rugby Union aims to strengthen the talent pipeline by formalising relationships between senior clubs in the Premiership and Championship, junior clubs and rugby-playing schools.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Mattias Chia brushing aside his Malaysian opponent to score a try as Singapore emerged victorious with a 19-7 win in the final to clinch the host nation's first SEA sevens trophy in April this year. Singapore's men's and women's sevens teams clinched
Mattias Chia brushing aside his Malaysian opponent to score a try as Singapore emerged victorious with a 19-7 win in the final to clinch the host nation's first SEA sevens trophy in April this year. Singapore's men's and women's sevens teams clinched two silver medals at August's SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, their best showing at the Games.ST FILE PHOTO

SRU wants to ensure progression for players from schools, clubs through to national team

Imagine this - Singapore's rugby teams are among Asia's top four, with scores of children playing the sport in schools and junior clubs.

The young athletes graduate to 10 senior clubs that play in both the Premiership and Championship domestic competitions, and the clubs are commercially viable through activities such as high-quality coaching clinics and mini-tournaments.

That is the vision Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) president Terence Khoo and his team have for the sport here, with changes in place to move towards that goal.

Khoo told The Straits Times in an interview that the changes are the result of feedback his team have gathered over the past year, before the 46-year-old was elected to the top rugby position in June this year.

The former national captain said: "We came to a point where we didn't focus on people acquiring skills, we didn't focus on pathways, from schools to clubs to senior teams. I felt that we really need to make playing the game a very focal point of our existence."

Improving the performance and standing of the national teams is the central focus of Khoo's target for Singapore to "punch just below" Asia's top four in the next four years. The Republic's men's and women's 15s teams are seventh and sixth in the continent's rankings.

STRONGER RELATIONSHIP

Due to certain reasons, people stop playing rugby, but we want to minimise that.

SHAFIQ ZULAZMI, Singapore Rugby Union assistant honorary secretary, hopes the players' bond with the sport can be improved.

To do that, the talent pipeline needs to be strengthened, with SRU hoping to formalise relationships between senior clubs in the Premiership and Championship, junior clubs and rugby-playing schools.

"It is our observation that if players are not affiliated to a club and don't build that affinity with one, they might stop playing rugby straight after school," said SRU assistant honorary secretary Shafiq Zulazmi, who heads the union's development commission.

"Due to certain reasons, people stop playing rugby, but we want to minimise that and strengthen that sense of community. I believe clubs are the correct vehicle to do that."

HIGHER LEVEL OF PROFESSIONALISM

I am almost fixated that we will select our best national team to represent our country.

TERENCE KHOO, Singapore Rugby Union president, believes the raft of changes will be to the long-term benefit of Singapore rugby .

The national sports association also came up with a national curriculum to guide coaches on the type and difficulty of skills to impart to children of different ages.

As different rules may apply across youth tournaments of the same age group now, the syllabus aims to provide standardised rules for the various age bands.

Matthew Roberts, a director at junior club Titans Rugby Football Club, which runs programmes for people aged 6 to 16, is cautiously optimistic about the proposed changes .

CREAM OF THE CROP

We want to select the best athletes; those with the best skills, fitness and attitude to represent Singapore.

MARTIN WILLIAMS, Singapore Rugby Union vice-president, feels the tightening of the selection criteria will lead to better standards.

The 39-year-old said: "I love the idea of it (the changes) and, if there are more synergies between the junior clubs and the SRU, and maybe some funding that goes along with it, it'd be great.

"I believe that the SRU needs to formalise its structure with the Junior Rugby Clubs Singapore (JRCS) committee so that there's common ground there," he added, referring to the seven junior clubs here, which run competitions from Under-10 to U-17 levels.

Mark Lee, head coach of senior club Bedok Kings and a former national player, said the changes will help improve the current "dysfunctional" pathway for a young player to reach the senior national team.

GIVE CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYERS A CHANCE

When the selectors come in some time next year, I will be fully fit but have no chance.

KEITH ARRIOLA, Oldham centre, who stayed with the Championship side to recover from serious injuries.

But the 39-year-old added: "It's not a short-term fix, with so many moving parts to keep this rugby machine going. We need everyone to be on the same page."

The development of a healthy rugby eco-system here will take time, but Khoo plans to accelerate the process by "selling forward by selling promises" to the stakeholders like players, clubs and sponsors.

"We cannot wait till we grow organically on a very incremental, marginal level to get there," said Khoo, managing director of sports marketing firm Enterprise Sports Group.

"It is about communication, and it requires confidence in your product, leadership and the systems."


SINGAPORE AGAINST THE REST OF THE WORLD

MEN'S 15S

• World ranking: 58

• Asian teams ranked higher: Japan (11), Hong Kong (22), South Korea (31), Sri Lanka (42), Kazakhstan (44) and Malaysia (47)

WOMEN'S 15S

• World ranking: 34

• Asian teams ranked higher: Japan (16), Kazakhstan (17), Hong Kong (23), China (24) and Thailand (33)

SEVENS

• Men: 4th in second-tier Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy

• Women: 7th in top-tier Asian Rugby Sevens Series

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'Player progression: Stronger pathway planned for rugby'. Print Edition | Subscribe