Big rugby friendly called off at National Stadium

First, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced the Lions will not train or play friendly matches on the vulnerable pitch at the new National Stadium as part of the team's build-up to their defence of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup crown.

Then came the news from Singapore SportsHub Pte Ltd (SHPL), who revealed that the stage for the Mariah Carey show on Oct 24 had been moved off the pitch, while the popular Jay Chou concert at the 55,000-capacity stadium had been rescheduled from Nov 8 to Dec 27.

Yesterday, SHPL chief operating officer Oon Jin Teik said in a statement that the rugby friendly between the Maori All Blacks and the Asia Pacific Dragons originally scheduled on Nov 15 at the National Stadium had been cancelled.

Singapore are co-hosts with Vietnam for this year's Suzuki Cup and all Group B games will be held here.

While concert-goers and rugby fans will be unhappy, the latest decision could well be a tipping point, as the AFF mull over whether to allow Singapore to host Suzuki Cup games starting on Nov 23, at the National Stadium, or move them to the Jalan Besar Stadium, or even move it to another country, although that seems unlikely.


The AFF expressed their unhappiness with the state of the pitch a few days before the glamour friendly between Brazil and Japan on Oct 14 and questions were raised whether the region's most prestigious football competition should be played on a surface that is not up to international standard.

The AFF Council will make their decision this week, but with the special $1.5 million light system allowed to work its magic on the Desso turf for a little over two-and-a-half months uninterrupted, the Suzuki Cup could well stay at the National Stadium.

SHPL CEO Oon said yesterday that the rugby match was scrapped "as part of our concerted efforts to enhance pitch recovery".

Ironically, the announcement on the same day a strong 27-man Maori All Blacks squad captained by Charlie Ngatai, and coached by Tana Umaga, was unveiled.

Nigel Cass, New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) general manager of planning and operations, said the decision (to cancel) was made due to safety concerns over the poor pitch condition.

"We feel let down that this has happened at this late stage. It's very disappointing. This ground is state of the art, it opened in June and we have every reason to expect it would be a world-class venue," he said.

"From our point of view, player safety is just something we couldn't contemplate compromising, so we've made the decision that the game can't precede in conjunction with the Dragons."

But Oon added: "We are still in open discussion with the event organisers to explore alternative options for rugby fans in Singapore. More details will be released at a late date.

"SportsHub Pte Ltd will continue to work closely with the Singapore Rugby Union and event organisers such as Carinat Sports Marketing to bring the best rugby teams around the world to the Singapore Sports Hub."

Ticketholders are allowed a full refund, including the pre-sold parking ticket (if purchased) *.

New Zealand news website Stuff reported that members of the Maori team and management will still come to Singapore to fulfil commercial commitments.

Things came to a head after The New Paper reported on Oct 9 that the National Stadium's hosting of the Jay Chou concert and the rugby friendly contravened the AFF's minimum 15-day requirement for the pitch to "rest" before the start of the Suzuki Cup.

During Brazil's 4-0 win over Japan on Oct 14, it was plain to see that while the pitch was playable, the centrepiece of the $1.33 billion Singapore Sports Hub was not of international standard.

The subsequent fallout saw Sport Singapore weigh in, saying they would withhold funding to SHPL as part of their Public-Private-Partnership agreement if obligations weren't met.

While disappointed with the latest development, Singapore Rugby Union president Low Teo Ping understood why the match had to be cancelled.

He said: "The rugby community here is disappointed because they will not be able to witness not just any friendly, but a test match featuring future All Blacks and other players from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

"But player welfare has to come first. If the pitch is not up to standard, you can't expose them to the risk injury."

Low doesn't think there would be major ramifications for Singapore's bid for the 18th Super Rugby licence when the competition expands in 2016. "I don't think there will be any effects because eventually the pitch will be ready by then," he said.

From our point of view we know for certain that on Nov 15, that grass cover isn't going to be great, so we had to make the hard call. The potential for injury was simply too great to ignore. We are worried with tackle, contact and scrums that it doesn't have the integrity to stand up to that. The venue owners are worried because if they did let the match proceed what would we do in terms of damaging the pitch further? - NZRU's Nigel Cass, on the poor state of the National Stadium pitch

This article was first published on Oct 22, 2014.
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