Sporting Life

Sonny and Sony make it a great Singapore weekend at the Hub

New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams signs for fans at the Day 1 of HSBC Sevens series at the National Stadium, on April 16, 2016. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

The lights dim slowly but his smile will not. The media gather, cameras aim and his lingering faithful shout into the night:

"Sony, Sony, Sony."

This is not the Singapore National Stadium where young boys beg the obliging rugby star Sonny Bill Williams for selfies. This chant is for another Sony, for a badminton qualifier at the Indoor Stadium; with a back injury, who goes deaf to a 7,000 crowd who mostly isn't on his side as he beats the bard of badminton.

Sony Dwi Kuncoro is putting on a show with Lin Dan. Both men are not made of ligaments and tendons but nerve and elastic bands. When they rise to smash, gravity doesn't apply to them. Sony wins and drops to his knees; Lin loses and someone else quietly carries his bag out.

At the Indoor Stadium yesterday was found a game dexterous, powerful and with no body contact. A short hike away at the National Stadium was discovered a bunch of athletes wriggling, wrestling and whistling down the wing in the HSBC Rugby Sevens. Both sports are distant cousins: There are rugby chaps who weigh 108kg and could benchpress a badminton doubles team.

This is what Singapore weekends should be like: Two ancient games, modern stadia, endless combat. This is also what the Sports Hub is for, to make us take the train to Stadium, toss a coin and decide what to watch.

At the rugby, bodies collide, music thumps and fans come dressed in togas, kilts and headwear borrowed from Geronimo. A fellow in a head-to-toe Scottish flag body stocking made an appearance and so did a culturally confused gent who wore a kimono with a keffiyeh. Expression is clearly the essence of Sevens.

This is what Singapore weekends should be like: Two ancient games, modern stadia, endless combat. This is also what the Sports Hub is for, to make us take the train to Stadium, toss a coin and decide what to watch. Take your family because these badminton and rugby players will tell your phone-addicted kids that there's nothing in a video game that they can't do better.

Yesterday was pure Singaporean fun. Yesterday meant journeying from the air-conditioned non-violence of badminton to the outdoor full-contact of rugby. At the badminton, you meditatively drink in the action, at the rugby you wash it down with beer and see how loud you can be on a decibel meter. Just to reassure the thirsty, there were 1,100 kegs - each fills 90 glasses - at the stadium. With 620 kegs on standby.

Badminton is primarily owned by the East and rugby by the West, yet both are wonderfully whimsical. In their very first game of the pool stage, the All Blacks were downed 24-0 by France and when I asked Frenchman Jonathan Laugel what he found attractive about Sevens, he, beaming and bandaged, answered: "Something like this, when the biggest teams can lose."

At the badminton, every point is like a different short story and at the rugby every game offers a dissimilar style. The Fijians - as their coach Ben Ryan mused - have a "high-risk, entertaining style". Think trapeze artists without a lifeline or the Brazil of gifted hands. "England are quite direct and organised," added Ryan, "the French have flair and structure, the All Blacks are efficient and wear you down." The Aussies? Gritty. What else?

Everyone with a player pass in both arenas has fabulous fast-twitch fibre. If badminton players complain of the draught in the Indoor Stadium then that is exactly what you might feel when the accelerating American Perry Baker goes by you in the Sevens. But as Ryan notes, this isn't straight-line sprinting, this is players going fast "in different directions, ball in one hand and a fellow trying to smash you".

Badminton players, of course, will swear they do fast even faster. Doubles play is like a reflex test and yesterday, smashes by singles players at 300kmh were returned with a nonchalant look that said "try again". These players are so quick that on Friday a female Japanese doubles player darted off court - in the midst of a rally - to change her racket whose strings had broken.

The badminton yesterday was sublime skill in a small space. When there were four people on court it looked crowded.

Sevens rugby was the reverse. As Neil Best, who played 15-man rugby for Ireland, said: "It's half as many people in the same amount of space and it makes for a high-tempo spectacle."

It is, he insisted, "great to watch", but so is badminton with its finer margins, where players changed a brand new shuttle after a single point as if one flawed feather was going to impede their perfection.

Indeed, to watch finalist Ratchanok Intanon play was to believe that if Las Vegas magicians want tutorials in deception they should come to the Sports Hub today. So should you. Her art in one stadium, those stop-start, shuffle-shimmy rugby guys in the other.

Yesterday was how sport in Singapore should be, a 10-hour day of endless play and playfulness. By evening in the National Stadium an impromptu game of rugby broke out in the corridor and at the Indoor Stadium a dancing Indonesian fan shouted "yes, yes, yes, yes" in perfect harmony with every smash by his doubles team.

Somewhere in the middle of the day, I got a few seconds' worth of audience with Sonny Bill Williams. He has played rugby union, rugby league and even boxed, but I delicately asked the hulk from Auckland, has he ever played badminton?

He smiled enigmatically, said "maybe" and then added, "I'm not too good at it".

Maybe today, in between matches, the Kiwi can jog across the Sports Hub and watch the delightful Ratchanok. He might like her style. After all, yesterday, she was wearing all black.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Sonny and Sony make it a great Singapore weekend at the Hub'. Print Edition | Subscribe