A toast to our rugby heroes of ’78 – and to some fundamental principles of sport

The report:

The New Paper carried a two-page spread entitled “Rugby Good Times” last Saturday (20 Sept 2008) on that legendary Singapore rugby team of 1978.

The spread was done to commemorate the team of ’78, which also marked its 30th anniversary that night with a small bash at the Copthorne Orchid Hotel.

For the uninitiated, that team of ’78 created Singapore sporting history that year by

– winning the Malaysian Rugby Union (MRU) Cup for the first time in 44 years,

– finishing third in the Asian Rugby Championships (ARFU), its highest achievement at the ARFU till this day and

– winning the Singapore National Olympic Council’s Team, Coach and Sportsman of the Year Awards in an unprecedented treble sweep. 

You can check out the two-page spread here

My thoughts: 

As I mentioned before in a previous post, the achievements of that 1978 national rugby team remains the pinnacle of Singapore rugby and is still much talked about in hushed, reverential tones in rugby circles.

And of course, if you were a member of that legendary team, you would – deservedly – wear that membership like a badge of honour and, I am sure, your voice will always be brimming with pride each time you recount the yet-to-be-repeated-or-surpassed achievements of your team.

I think one reason why that team is so revered and fondly remembered to this day is because of what they represented: a bunch of passionate Singaporeans who showed that nothing is ever impossible if you set your heart and minds to the task, and if you showed the willingness, determination, and most importantly, the heart to succeed.

And mind you, these guys weren’t even professionals.

They were amateurs who were not paid for the sacrifices they made to train and play for their country.

In fact, as one of The New Paper reports mentioned, each of them actually paid $25 from their own pockets to travel by overnight train (so as to save on accomodation as well) to Kuala Lumpur to compete in the MRU Cup.

Not only that, they also obediently took everything that Singapore coach Natahar Bava threw at them at training (See reports “Siong Sundays” and “Fitness Training 1978-style“). 

One former Singapore international told me several years ago: “Nat (as Natahar Bava was knwn) killed us at every training session, man. He’d drill us until we vomited. Every time. 

“But you know something? We never hated him. We respected him and we would do whatever he made us do because he drilled it into us that we were doing it all for Singapore. He was the best coach we ever had.”  

What also captured the public’s imagination about this rugby team was the way the players were willing to lay their bodies down on the line for glory.

As another friend, a former sports journalist, who covered the team during the glory years of 1978 – 1982 told me:

“Reporters are supposed to be objective and netural when they cover matches, right?

“But when I saw our guys going into battle with the Kiwis in the MRU Cup, laying their bodies on the line against these huge 200-pounders who made them look like midgets, without flinching and without caring about their own personal safety, I just stopped being a reporter. There was no way you could continue being one.

“Instead, I became a fan cheering on my fellow countrymen out there in the field.”

As Natahar Bava said in The New Paper report: “All these stories of adversity, and the kind of competition we faced, made our achievements stand out.”

Truly, when one compares what that band of Singapore rugby amateurs went through back in 1978 to the way we won our table tennis silver medal at the recent Beijing Olympics, one just can’t help seeing the latter achievement in a lesser light, even though it is our first Olympic medal win since 1960.

Singapore rugby legend Song Koon Poh hit the nail on the head when he said in The New Paper article:

“For the younger generation who might not relate to us, we’d just like to remind them through this story that there was a rugby team in Singapore that did it before, and that the basic ingredients of hard work and perserverance still remain in sports after all these years.”

Unlike the 2008 Olympic silver medal achievement, there was no flagrant abuse of the Foreign Talent Scheme, no parachuting in of new naturalised China-born citizens into the national team at the eleventh hour, and no neglect of local talent development in the way that Singapore rugby team went about winning the MRU Cup and finishing third in Asia in 1978.

(Don’t get me wrong. Once again, I reiterate strongly that I have nothing against Li Jiawei, Feng Tianwei and Wang Yeugu. In fact, I take my hat off to them for the hours of blood, sweat and tears that they put into training for their sport. My beef, rather, is with the way their national sports association went about manufacturing the team that eventually resulted in that achievement) 

So, thank goodness then for our Paralympians Laurentia Tan and Yip Pin Xiu.

Their triumphs (see “Related links’) at the Beijing Paralympics have, I strongly feel, helped to restore not only some real pride and perspective back into Singapore sports, but also our faith in the fundamental principles of integrity, hard work and perserverance.

Because, at the end of the day, it’s not winning that truly counts. It’s how you go about achieving that win.

Yours in sport

Singapore Sports Fan

Related links:

15 Sept – Newsflash: Pin Xiu wins Singapore’s first Paralympic gold!

13 Sept – Newsflash: Swimmer Pin Xiu wins historic silver at Paralympic Games 

12 Sept: Newsflash – Theresa misses out on 100m breaststroke bronze at Paralympics

11 Sept: Newsflash – Laurentia Tan wins second bronze at Beijing Paralympics

10 Sept: New dawn beckoning for Singapore’s disabled athletes

24 July: Remembering the National Stadium – Best Memory #5

18 June: Singapore Table Tennis: is there more – or less – than meets the eye?

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3 thoughts on “A toast to our rugby heroes of ’78 – and to some fundamental principles of sport

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