Only gold will do for rugby 7s squad
The 2014 Asian Games might have taken place five months ago, but the disappointment of missing out on the tournament still lingers among the Singapore Rugby 7s players.
The team had met the qualification criteria for the Incheon Games - Singapore finished sixth in the Hong Kong leg of the ARFU Asian Sevens Series in August - but missed out as the Singapore National Olympic Council's deadline for appeals had already passed.
The team, coached by former national player Ismail Kadir, are determined to prove a point when the 2015 South-east Asia (SEA) Games rolls around in June.
Singapore will host the SEA Games for the first time since 1993 and only gold is on the minds of the Singapore players.
"Gold, and nothing less, that is the target," coach Ismail told The New Paper earlier this week.
The 38-year-old was part of the 2007 SEA Games squad that won bronze in Korat, Thailand - the last time rugby featured at the biennial event.
He has been coaching the squad of 18 players three times a week since July and feels they stand a good chance of success based on results in 2014.
Singapore beat regional rivals Thailand and Malaysia during the Sevens Series last year, finishing sixth out of 15 teams. The Philippines were the highest-ranked Asean team in fifth place.
The Philippines team also finished fifth at last year's Asian Games, with Thailand seventh and Malaysia ninth.
The Singapore men - with an average age of 24 - aim to beat them all at this year's SEA Games.
"The players are young, dynamic, self-motivated and they listen," said Ismail, who is affectionately known as Izzy.
"The beauty of this team is that there are no stars. Our strength is our team cohesion. Even the older guys have to work hard just to get into the final squad of 12."
The Singapore side boast just three players over the age of 30, one of whom is veteran Daniel Marc Chow, captain of the national 15s.
The coach has yet to name the captain for the 7s team, but Chow is not thinking about it.
He is focused on the team.
"We have a great mix of experience and youth," said Chow.
"In previous teams, you'd look at certain players and say they're a sure starter but, with this team, Izzy actually has a selection dilemma.
"The guys who made the difference last year were the younger ones like (Marah) Israf and Nicholas (Yau)."
According to Chow, the move by the Singapore Rugby Union to blood youngsters in 2013 has begun to bear fruit.
The team experienced a difficult season two years ago, finishing 10th in the Sevens Series, but have made good strides since.
Said Chow: "There was some apprehension when this team got together early last year, because the previous season was quite demoralising.
"But 2014 was our best showing in a long while, and now, we're really confident in the 7s.
"We know our strengths and weaknesses, and we know our main rivals, like Thailand and Malaysia, well.
"The Philippines are a little more unpredictable. They have a few strong individuals who are based in Japan.
"But their team haven't played together for as long we have. Ninety per cent of them don't even live in the Philippines."
A team of 12 from the current provisional squad will compete in an invitational tournament in Darwin, starting on Wednesday, where Singapore will test themselves against Australian club sides and a Hong Kong selection.
On Feb 27, the team will compete in the prestigious Borneo 7s in Sabah, where they will face top European and New Zealand club sides.
"We're not holding back in terms of preparation for the SEA Games," said team manager Clarence Lam, also a former national player.
"We don't want any excuses come June. It's gold or bust."
French flair for S'pore rugby
He represented his school in rugby here but, when he was 15, Max Ducourneau moved to Bordeaux.
That was in 2009.
His parents wanted him to do his 'A' levels and continue with his university stint there, but he never stopped playing the game.
Ducourneau (above) returned home last May for National Service and, very quickly, the Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) roped him into the 7s squad training for this year's South-east Asia (SEA) Games, and he will offer French flair when the tournament rolls around in June.
Speaking to The New Paper recently, he said: "I had never been part of the national team before, but I actually knew some of the players from when I played for the Lycee Francais (Singapore French School) team in schools competition here.
"Someone scouted me when I played in the 2012 SCC 7s tournament for my team Pyrenees.
"When I came back last year, he introduced me to (SRU technical director) Inoke Afeaki. Soon after that, I started training with the Singapore team.
"I like training with these guys, there's always good energy and there's also a sense of brotherhood. I'm glad I was accepted by the team (quickly)."
The current 18-man Singapore squad will eventually be trimmed to 12, and the 1.80m-tall Ducourneau, who can play centre or as a winger, is considered one of the team's bright prospects after a strong showing at last year's Asia Sevens Series.
He has also raised a few eyebrows with his commitment, cutting short one of his trips back to France last September to play in the Kuala Lumpur leg of the series.
"To pay for the flight changes himself just so he could join us for a tournament shows Max's dedication," said team manager Clarence Lam.
"Sometimes, he comes to training straight from camp, still in his army uniform, and after hours of (NS) duty. He's never too tired to train.
"Max has also done a great job of integrating with the team."
The SEA Games will be his first foray into international rugby, Ducourneau will be one of Singapore's main men.
While in France, the youngster played three seasons for the junior team of "Top 14" side Bordeaux Begles.
It was a stint which improved his game tremendously.
"Those were my best rugby years so far," said Ducourneau.
"I was injured a lot in my first year, because the guys there were so much bigger, but I got better the next two years.
"Training sessions with the Singapore team are tough too, because everyone wants a place in the final 12.
"If I make (the cut), the SEA Games will be a huge experience for me."