Singapore Rugby catches fire

Singapore's Sidney Kumar (with ball) seen here being tackled by Alvin Chik (No. 16) and Rob Forrest during the Asian Tri-Nations opener with Hong Kong.

Few realised it at the time but Singapore rugby underwent a seismic change in Petaling Jaya in June last year.

Suhaimi Amran's last-gasp penalty kick in a 20-17 win over Malaysia secured promotion to Division One of the Asian Five Nations (AFN) - one rung below the premier level which features heavyweights Japan and Hong Kong.

More importantly, a winning mentality was born among the Reds, one that gradually trickled down through their nascent youth setup. National prop Reiner Leong said: "Beating your arch-rivals on home soil is always sweet but getting back among Asia's big boys was a bigger confidence boost.

"Winning is a habit, and there was a clear mindset change among the players, as we sometimes went into games thinking we didn't stand a chance."

The results do not lie: 2014 has arguably been Singapore rugby's most successful year on and off the field.

The Reds retained their division one status after beating the United Arab Emirates in a one-off play-off, climbing eight spots to 58th in the world rankings - or seventh in Asia.

The Republic also placed a creditable seventh in the Asian Sevens Series as they gear up for the SEA Games on home soil. The pipeline looks strong too.

The Under-19s were promoted to the top tier of the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) tournament after resounding victories over the Philippines (28-7) and Thailand (22-5) in Manila last week.

The squad is made up entirely of players either born or raised in Singapore - going against the typical approach of burgeoning rugby nations filling their line-ups with burly and experienced foreigners.

"We could have easily fielded a team full of foreign talent, got good results and patted our own backs," said Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) vice-president Jonathan Leow.

"But what good will that do for rugby's development in Singapore?

"We want more local kids to play the game and realise there's a clear and fair pathway to represent their country."

Starting in 2011, more emphasis has been placed on grooming homegrown talent.

The average age of the national team has since fallen from 29 to 25 while the SRU has expanded its grassroots outreach.

There are currently more than 60 schools taking part in youth leagues from the primary to tertiary levels.

To introduce the high-octane game to hesitant kids and parents, a non-contact rugby programme is also offered to the primary schools.

"There is no better sport than rugby for instilling discipline, character and respect in a child," said SRU technical director Inoke Afeaki, credited for pushing through a locals-first culture since taking on the post in January last year.

Supported by medical and sports science staff, the 40-year-old Tongan has also made his mark at the elite level.

National training under the three-time World Cup flanker comes with a twist. For instance, national 100m record holder UK Shyam conducts fitness sessions while national wrestlers are roped in for their expertise in balance and technique.

Senior players are assigned to coach SRU youth teams, creating a sense of camaraderie and mentorship within the fraternity.

Next year promises bigger challenges and rewards for Singapore rugby.

The National Stadium will host a leg of the prestigious Sevens World Series and Super Rugby matches as part of an historic agreement with Japan's rugby union.

This builds on its staging of the inaugural World Club 10s championship that featured eight teams in June.

In exchange for being a second home to the new Japanese Super Rugby franchise, Asia's top rugby nation will offer technical expertise in coaching, referees and medical support.

Singapore players who impress during trials will also be offered professional contracts in Japan's Top League, widely regarded as the continent's premier club tournament.

There are constraints to work around - SRU's annual budget of around $1 million is 10 times less than Japan and Hong Kong.

Long-term plans include establishing a year-round schools tournament and a semi-professional domestic league.

For now, the national 15s side can look forward to facing big boys like Sri Lanka in the AFN in May while the sevens outfit gun for gold at the SEA Games a month later.

Driven by a common purpose, the squad trains twice daily - up to six times a week - while juggling work and family commitments.

National team manager Clarence Lam said: "Change is sweeping across Singapore rugby, from players getting stronger and fitter to more high-profile events being held here.

"If you thought 2014 was good for our game, 2015 will be even better."