Jay-Hykel Jailani returned from the Hong Kong 10s rugby tournament with new-found knowledge of the game - and slight bruising to face and pride alike.
Playing in the Cup semi-finals last Thursday, he attempted to tackle Samoan centre Alesana Tuilagi who, at 117kg, is 40kg heavier than the 20-year-old Singaporean.
Back home, he could have got away with a high charge but Tuilagi responded with a hefty shove that sent the tackler sprawling.
"It was fair from him, but it felt like I was slapped by a giant," Jay-Hykel recalled with a laugh yesterday.
Brutal as it may have sounded, the incident was the highlight of his week-long stint with the Asia Pacific Dragons.
The Republic Polytechnic student was the only Singaporean selected to train and play at the prestigious event, as part of a tie-up between the invitational side and the Singapore Rugby Union.
He received personalised training and one-on-one talks with Dragons coaches Tana Umaga and Justin Marshall, both All Blacks legends.
Marshall, New Zealand's most-capped half-back, was impressed with the youngster's gameplay and passing.
He said: "Jay showed no fear, as we saw with his attempted tackle on Tuilagi - he got hit bad and got right up to tackle again.
"The boy has heart and potential. I truly believe if he keeps working hard and developing, he could be a big player for Singapore, and even play overseas one day."
The 1.8m winger started all five games for the Dragons' reserves, who surpassed expectations to reach the cup semi-finals.
There, they lost 0-33 to the Dragons' first team, the tournament's eventual champions led by Tuilagi.
Off the field, Jay-Hykel saw first-hand how the top players, buffed as they were, stuck to strict diets of salad, sushi and lean meat.
He aims to tackle lower - and harder - when he makes his international debut in a Test match away to the United Arab Emirates on April 23.
He said: "Everytime I go into a challenge, Tuilagi's face will be on my mind."
This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.
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