A debut to end 3 years of pain

SINGAPORE - A heart-wrenching knee injury robbed Fahmy Marah of his international rugby debut three years ago.

Then 22, he was just days away from representing Singapore at the Asian Five Nations tournament - until a burly opponent fell on top of his right leg in a club match.

"I heard a crack - and it broke my heart," said the fly-half, who had to be sidelined for almost a year from the sport he fell in love with at age nine.

"I had always dreamed of playing for my country, and it was taken away from me in just one second."

But while his cartilage and ligament were torn, his spirit was not. Fahmy had to re-learn everything - from how to walk to balancing himself. Gym workouts became a daily routine to burn off the extra 10kg gained owing to a lack of exercise after the injury.

Holidays and family outings were also sacrificed in a bid to regain the form that once saw him lead Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) to a record 56-0 final win in the 2002 C Division schools national championship.

The pain was worth the gain.

On Sunday, Fahmy, who is now fighting fit at 80kg, will get a second chance at making his first appearance for Singapore. The Nanyang Technological University graduate, who was the institution's rugby captain, will line up in the crucial No. 10 spot for the hosts, who face a stern test against a Hong Kong developmental team in the Asian Tri-Nations.

Chinese Taipei are the other side in the competition at Yio Chu Kang Stadium over the next week.

Fahmy said: "People keep asking me why I put myself through so much pain. This match will show them why."

Singapore coach Inoke Afeaki has no qualms selecting the Bedok Kings player, citing his innate ability to read the game well.

"Most fly-halves are playmakers and passive defensively, but Fahmy engages the defence quite quickly and forces them to make decisions," said the former Tonga captain, who played in the 1995, 1999 and 2003 Rugby World Cups.

"Fly-halves have to stand out from the other players and I believe he can do that."

The team's fortunes have improved after the 40-year-old was appointed the national coach and technical director in January.

While the Reds used to rely on set-pieces and line-outs in the final third, they have switched to a faster-paced game, which gives more variety to their approach.

In June, the team clinched promotion back to Division 1 (second tier) after beating Malaysia 20-17 in the Asian Five Nations Division 2 final in Petaling Jaya.

For the upcoming tournament, Inoke has gone for youth with the 2015 SEA Games in mind. Almost half of his 23-man squad are below the age of 25.

"Inoke gives us the freedom to express ourselves and follow our instincts; other coaches 'die-die' want us to play to their game plans," said winger Nashrul Hadi Hanafi, 20, who could also make his international bow on Sunday.

For example, in training drills, Afeaki provides guidelines over where the ball should be moved. How that is achieved is entirely left in the hands and feet of the players.

He hopes his faith will be repaid come game time, saying: "It will be a baptism of fire, especially against Hong Kong. The performance will be more important than the result.

"Most importantly, I want to see us playing good, clean rugby."

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