Rugby: Sevens heaven for newcomers to Singapore's SEA Games-bound women's squad

Ms Shuhadah getting tackled by one of the boys from the rugby team of Catholic Junior College during a friendly match with the National Women's Rugby Sevens Team at the Yio Chu Kang stadium.
Ms Shuhadah getting tackled by one of the boys from the rugby team of Catholic Junior College during a friendly match with the National Women's Rugby Sevens Team at the Yio Chu Kang stadium.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - A few years ago, the sport of rugby sevens was relatively unknown to them.

But fast-forward to the present and the trio of Ong Pei Yi, Nur Shuhadah Mohamed Abdul Gaffoor and Jayne Chan are part of the 12-woman squad heading to the Aug 19-30 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, where they will be making their senior debuts.

All three were once promising youth athletes in other sports and made the switch to rugby sevens recently by chance.

Ong was once a budding hockey player on track to making the senior national team, having represented the country at the Under-21 level in multiple competitions.

However, university commitments prevented her from attending training sessions, which led her to call time on her hockey career.

She was introduced to rugby sevens when she took a sports elective module at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

"My friend convinced me to take up the elective and that it'd be fun to try something new so I agreed," the recent NTU chemistry graduate told The Straits Times.

The module's instructor, who was also the university women's rugby sevens coach, recognised Ong's talent immediately and invited her to join the team.

Although she acknowledges that hockey and rugby are different, she insists that there are some similarities as well.

"I carry over things like evasive running, footwork, field awareness and scanning from hockey," said Ong. "I enjoy the unpredictability of things and how fast and physical sevens is."

For Shuhadah, the painful seven-year wait to represent the country in a major competition is finally over.

The former basketball player was set to participate in the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010 but had to pull out after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which saw her lose even basic mobility.

She fought the disease into remission and eventually resumed playing sports recreationally after three years of treatment.

But as an avid sportswoman, who has also played football, handball and touch rugby, Shuhadah was still unsatisfied so she jumped at the opportunity when national rugby sevens women's head coach Wang Shao Ing spotted her last year at her the National University of Singapore's inter-hall games.

"It's really an honour to wear national colours at such a high level especially after all I have been through. Back then when I was diagnosed, I never really thought that I would be here. It was just taking one step at a time and I'm lucky that it led to this," she said.

"I really like how I can put to use all the skills I gained from my previous sports into the game. It is really tactical and aggressive and that's what I like about it."

When asked if her condition worries her, the mechanical engineering graduate said: "My disease made me realise how little time I have to play sports. My doctor told me that I would have to pay the price if I continued but I am willing to do that because it makes me happy.

"I will do it (rugby) as long as my body can take it."

Similarly, former basketballer Jayne Chan, 18, who represented Singapore at youth level, also switched to rugby after she realised her talents were better suited there after following her friend to a club training session in January.

"After playing in the U-18s, I was not even invited to try out for the national team. I'm really short for a basketballer and did not see much of a future so after trying rugby, I realised I have a lot more to offer here," said Chan, who stands at 1.56m.

Wang admits she is amazed at the progress of the trio.

"They're already athletic, fit, fast, agile and have spatial awareness. Certain elements are already there and transferable to rugby. They are able to apply this instinctively and this makes it a lot easier to coach them. It's funny to think how it's only been barely two years at most since they started," she remarked.

SRU announced the men's and women's squads on Sunday.

Despite a new squad with only a handful of veterans, both teams will be looking to improve on their medal-winning performances from the last SEA Games on home soil two years ago, when the women and men won a silver and bronze respectively.