Women's rugby team want to convert non-believers

These are tough girls who have to do much more than their sporting peers to gain recognition and respect.

The Singapore women's rugby sevens team - favourites for the SEA Games gold - have no qualms going into bone-crunching tackles and lung-bursting runs.

They accept the dislocated shoulders and bruised knees that are intrinsically linked to the high-octane game, even taking on men's teams in friendly matches.

Yet, those are not the toughest challenges they face. Overcoming prejudice and stereotyping in the male-dominated sport is.

Chloe Besanger, the team's youngest player at 21, has had to tell her parents that she is a youth footballer instead.

"They are going to be in for a surprise on June 6 and 7 - a pleasant one I hope," the graduate of French school Lycee Francais de Singapour said with a laugh.

Those two dates are the days on which the SEA Games rugby tournament will be played at Choa Chu Kang Stadium. And that will be when the Singapore women tackle more than just their four opponents - Malaysia, Philippines, Laos and main rivals Thailand.

The team of lawyers, teachers, stockbrokers and students are playing to break down barriers and encourage more women to take up contact rugby.

"You play rugby, like seriously, r-u-g-b-y?," is the typical response captain Samantha Teo, 25, gets when she reveals her current day job.

The answer is an emphatic yes. And these 12 petite but deceptively powerful women play it pretty well.

On a training tour to China in March, they lost by a single try to the hosts, who are ranked No. 1 in Asia.

"When people watch us play, we want their first reaction to be, 'Why didn't I take up rugby earlier?'," said Teo, who featured for Japanese professional outfit Tokyo Phoenix last year.

Just 42 hopefuls turned up for trials to make the Singapore team last year.

Women's contact rugby is only played at the tertiary level in schools, even if the sport has grown to the point where there are now 12 full national outfits in Asia.

The World Rugby Women's Sevens Series is gaining popularity after its 2012 debut, while the game makes its Olympic bow in Rio de Janiero next year.

It is never too late to start. The majority of Singapore players crossed over from touch rugby or handball, while the team's speedsters, Alvinia Ow and Angelina Liu, were formerly in track and field.

There are no rule differences between the men's and women's games, meaning below-shoulder tackling, contested lineouts and raucous rucks are fair game.

But for Gene Tong, the Singapore women's head coach for more than a decade, there is one key distinction between the sexes.

"The women are more driven to get things right during training," he said. "They also complain a lot less than the men."

Tong is assisted by former national players Wang Shao-Ing and Kristy Teh - key members of the 2007 silver-medal winning outfit.

Thailand claimed gold for both the men and women in Korat in 2007, the last time the sport featured at the biennial Games.

Singapore's men rugby team had to settle for a bronze then, but are hopeful of bagging a historic gold on home soil.

Like their female compatriots, most of the players have benefited from the Final Push, a one-year support scheme specifically for next month's Games that covers overseas training expenses, training equipment and coaching assistance for prospective medal winners.

"Our preparations have been great, from sports science education to medical support to well-organised training camps," captain Daniel Marc Chow noted.

In other words, the hosts are ready to shine at Choa Chu Kang.

After the round-robin phase for both the men and women, the top two will face off in the final, with the third and fourth-placed teams vying for the bronze.

For the Singapore women, the goal is more than gold.

Teo said: "If more girls are inspired to join rugby, it will mean just as much as a medal."

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