SEA Games: Resolute S'pore seal first gold

SEA Games: Resolute S'pore seal first gold
(Above) Spectators react with glee after Singapore's netball team defeated Malaysia 46-43 after a tense final quarter yesterday.

Tied at 39-39 midway through the fourth quarter of the SEA Games netball final, Singapore coach Ruth Aitken called a time-out. She had seen enough.

With the gold medal on the line, her team had just let a five-goal lead over arch-rivals Malaysia evaporate. The 3,000-strong capacity crowd at the OCBC Arena had suddenly lost their voices, stunned by the Malaysian fightback.

The crowd's anxiety was understandable. Five days earlier, Singapore had let a six-goal lead slip to the Malaysians and eventually drew the match 35-35.

But this was not just an ordinary preliminary game. With President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in attendance, this was a match of utmost importance.

With the pain of losing the 2001 SEA Games final still playing on the mind of Singapore goal defender Premila Hirubalan and many associated with the sport here, this was a match nobody wanted to lose.

And no one wanted the win more than Hirubalan, the only player in the squad to have featured in 2001, the last time the sport featured at the Games.

"Some of my team-mates laugh, because back then they were in kindergarten," said the 32-year-old.

But as the time-out was called, and with Singapore's gold hopes fading, laughter would not be the best medicine. Instead, what was needed was a strong dose of self-belief. "If they (Malaysia) can do it, we can do it too. If they come back and try to bite us, we're going to come back harder," said Hirubalan.

But fighting words can only do so much. The team also needed to regain their composure and stick to what they do best - defend, force a turnover and hit the Malaysians on the break with fast movement and passing.

Said Aitken, a former World Championship winner with New Zealand: "It was about applying the pressure on their defence, so our attackers had to slow that ball down. And then when we got possession, it was about moving fast, letting the ball go and passing."

Singapore did just that, their renewed confidence putting pressure on the Malaysians, resulting in several turnovers, including a vital interception by vice-captain and goal attack Chen Huifen.

Said Hirubalan: "Towards the last few minutes when Huifen managed to intercept this fantastic ball and ran all the way down to put the shot in, that's when I knew, everyone is fighting for every single thing... no matter what, we won't give up."

They held on to outscore their opponents and win 46-43 to rapturous cheers from the crowd, which also included Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, who presented the medals.

It also helped that goal shooter Charmaine Soh had undergone "noise training" to cope with the fever-pitch atmosphere.

Training with noise like heavy metal music worked a treat. She had stuttered late in Tuesday's game, missing four shots in a row for 72 per cent goal accuracy, but yesterday she emerged as the game's highest scorer with 38 goals and 79 per cent accuracy.

Not surprisingly, the crowd and the energy they exhibited served to inspire the team.

Captain Micky Lin, who has been on three Asian Championship-winning teams, said it was a special moment to win the gold on home ground.

"This is my first SEA Games, even though I've been playing for over 10 years, so this is really special," she said. "It's not often that netball is featured in a multi-sport event... the atmosphere was amazing, I'm really proud to be part of such an event."

Added Hirubalan: "We're usually a very quiet society, but everyone was cheering their hearts out.

"I've never been prouder to sing the National Anthem."

isaacneo@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 08, 2015.
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