Remembering the National Stadium: Best memory #5

#5 When Singapore won its first international rugby title in 20 years  

That was in 1998 when Singapore won the Asian Rugby Championships Plate competition, also known as the Second Division title of the biennial event, by beating Sri Lanka 25-13 in the final at the National Stadium.

If you are a rugby fan, you would understand why that triumph was so precious to Singapore rugby.

It was the first time in 20 years that the Republic had ever won a piece of Asian rugby silverware, and it also came a year after Singapore recorded its first international win, a 21-10 win over Malaysia, in more than a decade (I kid you not).

Before all that, the 1980s right up to the the mid-1990s was a pretty bleak period for the sport, which in turn were a huge contrast to the golden years from 1978 to 1982. 

The Republic had finished third in the 1978 Asian Championships, a triumph that subsequently landed national coach Natahar Bava the Singapore National Olympic Council’s  Coach of the Year Award and skipper Song Koon Poh – arguably Singapore’s best player ever – the Sportsman of the Year Award.

That year also saw Singapore winning the Malaysian Rugby Union (MRU) Cup. Bava and Song then repeated that MRU triumph in 1982. (Note: the MRU Cup was rugby’s equivalent of the Malaysia Cup. It featured the Malaysian state sides, Singapore and a team from the New Zealand Armed Forces based in Singapore in the 1970s).

But it all went to pieces after that as Singapore slumped into a decade-long losing streak on the international stage.

Singapore rugby then hit an all-time low at the 1994 Asian Championships in Kuala Lumpur. That was where the Republic crashed to a world record 13-164 loss to Hong Kong. ( I am not able to confirm if the score has been surpassed since. Can anyone help?)

But things started to pick up when the Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) hired Australian Peter Randall as its chief executive and tasked him to turn the sport around. 

Randall took three years to do that.

By 1998, the cash-strapped NSA had been transformed into a 20-strong corporation operating on a $2.5 million annual budget. More than 4,000 people and 140 schools were also playing the game by 1998, the result of the SRU’s tireless efforts to promote the non-contact versions of the game to non-playing schools and to the public.

But regardless of all this, Singapore rugby still needed that major triumph on the international level to show that it had finally arrived. 

That triumph finally came in the 1998 Asian Rugby Championships.

So, as a rugby fan who grew up on stories of the exploits of Natahar Bava’s men, it was really a moment to savour when national skipper Terence Khoo walked up the National Stadium steps, received the Asian Championships plate and then held it up in front of 7,000 supporters. 

Singapore rugby has lost some momentum and shine in recent years.

Although it successfully defended the Division Two title two years later, Singapore’s ambitions of being one of Asia’s top-four rugby-playing nations in the past eight years has been checked by the emergence of the Arabian Gulf, Kazakhstan (both of whom joined the Asian Rugby Football Union family in 2000) and China.

(Piece of rugby trivia: Incidentally, China made its international debut in 1997 against Singapore. That historic match was held at the National Stadium, by the way, and beamed live worldwide. Singapore easily won 33-3.)

In fact, Singapore was not part of the inaugural HSBC Asian Five Nations competition held in April. The competing countries were Japan, South Korea, the Arabian Gulf, Kazakhstan and Hong Kong. Instead, Singapore is in Division One with Taiwan, Sri Lanka and China.

Singapore rugby is also still undergoing a period of rebuilding after being rocked by that financial scandal in 2005 which saw former SRU employee Sean Lee absconding after siphoning $1.2 million from its coffers. Lee’s whereabouts are still unknown today.

I am certain though that the SRU will find soon itself on steady ground once again under the stewardship of Low Teo Ping, who took over the SRU presidency from Dr Chan Peng Mun in the aftermath of that financial crisis.

But even so, I don’t think Singapore rugby is ever going to match those heady days of the late 90s which culminated in that 1998 win at the National Stadium.

The fact that I got to witness that moment is why that moment is on my list of top five memories of the National Stadium.

Yours in sport

Singapore Sports Fan

P.S: You can read about the history of Singapore rugby here. However, I have to say that I am surprised that the Singapore Rugby Union is only using 1995 as its starting point. Whatever happened to the rich history of the previous decades before that? Why no mention of the 1978 Asian Championships, of Natahar Bava and Song Koon Poh winning the SNOC awards, of Singapore winning the MRU Cup etc? No mention of how Song Koon Poh generated a maelstorm of controversy and earned himself a life ban by joining the Tokkie Dragons, an international group of rebels, to tour South Africa, which back then was still actively practising its aparthied polices and ostracised by the rest of the world? 

Tsk, tsk.

Related links:

23 July: Remembering the Grand Old Dame of Kallang? 

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7 thoughts on “Remembering the National Stadium: Best memory #5

  1. notsooldsportsfan says:

    Hi Sports fan,

    Came across your site accidentally, and read with relish your thoughts on Singapore Rugby’s biggest moment to date, and the lack of tribute to the heroes of past.

    As a current coach, and player, it saddens me that while all the other sports – football and even table tennis and Badminton celebrate its heroes, Singapore rugby seems to forget its heroes.

    ‘Song’ and ‘Nat’ are not the only 2 pioneers of Singapore Rugby. Other lumaries such as Leow Kim Liat – Singapore’s 1st asian captain of the national team, Teo Han Chua, Frank Kwok and even more recently ‘Buddha’ Leong Jee Wong (he was the vice capt of the 1998 team) should be remembered along side the greats of other sports.

    Its interesting to note that Singapore played England at the National Stadium in 1970 in a full international – bet you know one knows that now! Leow was to captain the team but was injuried, instead, a certain John Koh(most recent FAS President) took his place in the team, with another star of that era, Wong Wai Chew, only 2 asians in the team to face England.

    Anyways, enough rambling – thanks for the trip down memory lane, and keep it up!

  2. […] I mentioned before in a previous post, the achievements of that 1978 national rugby team remains the pinnacle of Singapore rugby and is […]

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  5. Francis says:

    Hi, its gratifying to read the column. How would you rate the players of the seventies such as Ishak (full-back, Police rugby) and the team under Hamzah of the Police rugby team ? Many of the players played for the nation.

  6. Francis says:

    Hi, there’s Yee Teck Peng who coached Singapore. He’s a very technical coach. Then there’s Rashid coached Singapore as well who’s very technical. Han Chua and Natahar are great at a different aspect of coaching than are Teck Peng and Rashid.
    Singapore seems to have great tallent, however, the general consensus always seems to be the financial payoff for effort. If these efforts were duly rewarded, like with bonuses for a certain level of achievement comparing against the current status of a team with what they are at the end of coaching, perhaps more talent will spring up in Singapore.

  7. singaporesportsfan says:

    Dear Francis

    Thank you for your feedback.

    Although I grew up in the 70s, I was only between the ages of 7 to 9 and never got to watch any of the Police chaps in action.

    Pity. But this is what I am going to do – I am going to forward your question to a mate of mine who was a former national in the 80s.

    He would know these players whom you are referring to, and be able to give his tw cets’ worth.

    I hope to get back to you as soon as I can.

    Cheers
    SSF

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