The Straits Times carried a report today on the national rugby team winning promotion to the Five Nations of the Asian Rugby Football Union Championships.
The result means that Singapore will get to play against Asian powerhouses Japan (to date, still the only Asian country to play in the Rugby World Cup Finals), South Korea, perennial arch-rivals Hong Kong and Kazakhstan.
Although I was really thrilled to read about Singapore’s promotion, I was left disappointed with the report as it lacked all the details which would have given a better idea of how Singapore fared against Taiwan and Sri Lanka in the Division One competition which was held in Taiwan earlier this month. And that is why I am not reproducing it here.
Instead, here’s my compilation of all the information regarding the Division One competition (external links included) as well as my assessment of Singapore’s chances next year:
Prior to the start of the tournament, one would have been hard-pressed to openly predict that Singapore would earn promotion to the Asian Five Nations (A5N) competition.
After all, Singapore’s recent results against Sri Lanka and Taiwan have been a mixture of narrow wins and defeats.
However, Singapore’s chances did brighten considerably after China suddenly withdrew from the Division One tournament.
After all, according to the International Rugby Board’s most recent world rankings, China is ranked 44th compared to Singapore’s 48th
(Note: when you consider that China only made its international test debut in 1997, losing 3-33 to Singapore, its current ranking is a frightening indication of how far Chinese rugby has progressed since).
It is believed that China pulled out of the Division One because of passport arrangements into Taiwan. China regards Taiwan as part of China whereas Taiwan regards itself as an independent country.
Still, Singapore’s chances of earning promotion to the A5N was really touch-and-go. Furthermore, Singapore’s 18-24 loss to in a warm-up friendly to a largely expatriate Guiness Cup select XV just prior to the Division One tournament definitely didn’t bring up the optimism levels.
In fact, Singapore narrowly escaped defeat to Sri Lanka in its opening match. Trailing 13-20 with just two minutes to go, Singapore scraped a draw when full-back Gareth Pritchard scored a try and John Forrester converted to force the 20-20 draw.
Singapore then bounced back from the draw with Sri Lanka to score a 23-22 win over host Taiwan two days later to give itself an outside chance of promotion. Once again, Singapore required a last-minute try to save its skin.
Trailing 16-22 with only just a minute left, Singapore did its second Houdini in 48 hours when it drove back the Taiwanese before hooker Gaspar Tan leapt over the line to score the try. Mohammad Ismail then calmly converted the try to give Singapore the win.
You can read the full-match report here.
But even though Singapore reached the top of the table with its draw and win (giving it a total of eight points), there was still every chance that Sri Lanka, lying second with three points, could pip the Republic to the sole qualifying slot. All the Sri Lankans needed was to beat Taiwan in its last match by two points to shatter Singapore’s dreams.
As such, you can imagine the butterflies in the stomachs of the nerve-wracked Singapore players as they watched the Sri Lanka-Taiwan test from the stands.
But thankfully, all that worrying came to naught and instead, the Singapore team erupted with joy as Taiwan easily defeated Sri Lanka 35-23 (you can read the match report here which also has a nice picture of Singapore skipper Chris Gilbert receiving the Division One trophy from HSBC representative Peter Davies.)
So Singapore will now take its place among Asia’s rugby elite next year.
But to be realistic, it is going to be a mammoth struggle for the Republic to avoid relegation in its first year in the A5N.
Singapore has not played against Japan and South Korea since 1992 and 1994 respectively but the results weren’t pretty. Singapore was hammered 3-120 by Japan at the 1992 ARFU competition and crashed 3-90 to South Korea two years later in the same competition.
And although Singapore has come a long way against Hong Kong since its world-record 13-164 mauling in 1994, it has still not been able to beat the largely expatriate Hong Kong side (it lost 10-12 and 5-25 in 1999, 6-30 in 2000 and 8-26 in 2001).
And although Hong Kong lost to Japan (29-75) and South Korea (24-50) in this year’s A5N, it evnetually finished third by beating Kazakhstan 23-17 and the Arabian Gulf 20-12 (the Arabian Gulf were subsequently relegated after finishing last in the competition).
So unless Singapore can pull off a win over Kazakhstan in next year’s tournament, chances are it will be heading for a drop back into Division One when the dust settles on the A5N.
What I think could be Singapore’s strength though is this never-say-die spirit that it seems to be exhibiting. The fact that the Republic pulled off those two last-gasp wins also attests to a high fitness level which could stand the team in good stead next year.
This assessment aside, Singapore’s promotion means a television treat for local rugby fans. They could get to watch the Singapore tests on television as all the Asian Five Nation matches were screened on ESPN STar Sports (Ch 24) this year.
I’ll certainly be looking forward to catching all the action on television.
In the meantime, the Singapore Sports Fan sends his heartiest congratulations to the Singapore team for earning promotion. You can find the full squad listed below.
Let’s take it one step at a time – and just savour the joy of promotion first. Cheers to all.
Yours in sport
Singapore Sports Fan
The Singapore ARFU SQUAD
Props: Norman Sin, Mark Lee, Nick Dance
Hookers: Gaspar Tan, MD Suhaimi Amran
Locks: Chris Gilbert (Capt), Steve Horsfall, Jeremy Chan
Flankers: Rong Jing Xiang, Andy Bennett, Romi Musa, Jonathan Lee
No. 8: Ben Wheeler
Scrum-halves: Tong Chin Hong, Andrew Lee
Out-half: John Forrester
Centres: Daniel Thiam, MD Ismail Kadir, Lionel Robinson
Wings: Jonathan Chen, Eric Ng, Pete Williams
Fullbacks: Gareth Pritchard, MD Zaki Mahmood