Water polo aims high after SEA Games gold No.25

NAYPYIDAW - The traditional water-dunking celebrations were on display at the Zayar Thiri Swimming Pool Tuesday, as Singapore's men's water polo team put their 25th successive SEA Games gold safely in the bag after a 21-13 win over hosts Myanmar.

But what gave team officials more cause for cheer was that this team have proven in their Naypyidaw campaign that they are no longer a one-dimensional outfit.

As all their opponents focused on nullifying Singapore's famed offence - the powerful centre-forward duo of Eugene Teo and Lin Diyang - the defensive players and young debutants stepped up to win the crown for the team.

With more balance this year, the team will now be aiming for their next objective: To establish supremacy over the second tier of Asian water polo nations - starting with a fourth-placed finish at next year's Asian Games.

Team manager Samuel Wong believes the current batch of players are the strongest to emerge from the Republic since the late 1980s.

Then, Singapore took bronze at the 1986 Asian Games, but no generation has since come close.

Said coach Lee Sai Meng: "The positive sign is that the other players have stepped up.

"While we used to rely heavily on our centre-forwards, we are now a more balanced team."

At the previous Games in 2011, the team were driven by the fire-power of Teo and Lin, who were the top two scorers.

In Myanmar, however, with opposing teams marking the duo heavily, they were restricted to only four goals between them.

Singapore's victories were secured by their astute defence led by Loh Zhi Zhi, who also stood up to take on offensive duties - he scored a brace in their earlier 8-5 win over Indonesia.

Wong added that a few of the younger players, including Sean Ang, 17, and Yip Yang, 22, also stood up to be counted and impressed in their debuts.

Yip scored four goals and Sean netted three in the team's 18-7 win in their opener against Malaysia.

Agreed Teo, the team's captain: "Now, the younger ones and also our defensive players are stepping up to take on scoring roles.

"Now, we can put the SEA Games and all the pressures of retaining the title aside, and go all out to train for the Asian Games."

A medal at September's Asiad in South Korea is still out of reach for Singapore, who are ranked 24th in the world. There are five Asian teams ranked ahead of them: Kazakhstan (11th), China (12th), Japan (15th), Kuwait (19th) and Iran (21st).

Kazakhstan, China and Japan, Wong believes, are a class above the rest and form the top tier.

Singapore are trying to get a foothold as the strongest team in the second tier by overtaking Kuwait and Iran.

The team's recent results at the Asian level have been encouraging. En route to their second-placed finish in October's Asia Water Polo Cup at home, they beat Kuwait 8-4 and put Iran to the test, leading 4-3 at half-time before losing 6-10.

Kazakhstan and Japan did not participate in the tournament, while China sent a youth team.

Said Wong: "We are trying to establish a consistent base as the fourth-strongest team in Asia.

"If you are still fluctuating among the level of second-tiered Asian nations and not stamping your authority, you can't talk about winning an Asian Games medal."

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