Polo boys close in on 25th gold

With defence vanguard Loh Zhi Zhi holding fort in point position and the quick reflexes of Nigel Tay in goal, Singapore's water-polo men formed an almost-impenetrable shield as they trotted out an 8-5 win over Indonesia at the SEA Games yesterday.

In effect, that Singaporean wall has remained impassable for the past 50 years, with the team's latest result at the Zayar Thiri Swimming Pool in Myanmar virtually securing their 25th successive SEA Games title.

The nation's long reign, a rarity in sport, will be extended officially today should they beat Myanmar to claim their fourth victory in four games of the five-team round-robin contest.

For many, that victory is a foregone conclusion as the hosts' team, made up of military men, were formed only six months ago. They lost their first two games - 1-30 to Indonesia, 3-22 to Thailand.

Singapore coach Lee Sai Meng, however, insisted yesterday that the celebrations will have to wait - out of respect for the hosts. But his relief was apparent.

Lee, who has been part of the legacy since 1995 when he was a player, said the main hurdle to retaining their title had been crossed with their win over their main title rivals.

He added: "If there was a meter for measuring the pressure before the game, it would have passed the limit.

"Retaining a title for such a long history is not easy. There will never be an easy game. Whichever team we play, they all want to beat Singapore."

It was clear that he and his team were determined not to be remembered as the ones who dropped the ball.

Captain Eugene Teo, who celebrated his 26th birthday with the team in a quiet cake-cutting affair on Sunday night, said: "Our heritage puts a lot more pressure on our shoulders. Especially for the younger boys."

One of the team's five debutants, Toh Zhi Hong, 23, shrugged off any pre-match jitters by becoming one of three who scored a brace in yesterday's game. Team veterans Lin Diyang and vice-captain Loh accounted for the other two sets.

Along with goals from Paul Tan and Chiam Kun Yang, the team ensured that the heroics of Indonesian hat-trick hero Mulia Ridjkie amounted to little.

For Lee, the game was won in Singapore's defence. The coach's assessment was simple, saying: "With Nigel and Zhi Zhi, (Indonesia) had nothing against us."

The opening ceremony of the 27th SEA Games will be held tomorrow, although several sports have had an early start.

Singapore has three medals so far, with one silver and a bronze in wushu, and a bronze in chinlone, a traditional Myanmar sport.

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