AFTER impressing in trials last week in Yokohama, national rugby players Reiner Leong and Alvin Ho have moved closer to becoming the first Singaporeans to feature in Japan's Top League.
The hard-hitting props have been invited back for a final selection in Osaka next month, where another good showing could earn them a professional contract in Asia's premier club competition.
Despite frigid rain in Kanagawa prefecture, the duo shone during the one-day training and subsequent trial match with 80 other hopefuls, mainly from local universities and youngsters from South Korea, Fiji and Tonga.
Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) technical director Inoke Afeaki, who also went on the trip, said coaches whom he spoke to were "impressed and frankly, a bit surprised" by Leong, 29, and Ho, 24.
Tonga's former World Cup captain added: "Reiner and Alvin were fighting for their lives like every player on the field but they were certainly noticed for their tackling and game sense.
"Having been invited for the final trial, I'd say they have a 50 per cent chance of a contract."
Top League sides, who are all owned by major Japanese companies such as Sanyo and Toshiba, can field one Asian passport holder and two non-Asian players at any one time during a match.
It is understood that the Canon Eagles and the Ricoh Black Rams - whom Afeaki played for in the late 1990s - have expressed interest in signing the two Singaporeans, towering presences who each weigh over 100kg.
In modern rugby, props are typically prized for their size and strength in running directly into the defensive line to gain ground.
"The Japanese players have a lot of heart but in terms of skills, I believe Alvin and myself are better in certain things," said Leong, who scored three tries in total in an impressive debut for the Asia Pacific Dragons during last year's World Club 10s tournament.
Ho, a third-year national player, added: "The trial match took place right after our only training session but we weren't overawed.
"We felt we belonged there and deserve a chance to play with Asia's finest rugby talents."
The Top League - whose teams are known for having tougher training regimens than the New Zealand All Blacks - already boasts two Malaysians, six Filipinos and four Hong Kongers.
A player earns about $15,000 on average for a five-month season. Stars like All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams reportedly took home $1.2 million for 12 matches with the Panasonic Wild Knights two years ago.
SRU vice-president Jonathan Leow said: "To have our Singapore boys sign for such a big competition would be a credit to the strong pipeline SRU has built and inspire players that there is a professional pathway if you work hard and focus on the goal."
This article was first published on Apr 14, 2015.
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