A tale for all Singaporean sport: Leonard Thomas
National rugby team's golden era of the 1970s & 1980s sets a standard that all in local sport should follow
There is a camaraderie within rugby teams that seems most unique to the sport, where its players, including those with dazzling individual gifts, give it their all together in preparation and then out on the field.
And when all the athletic action is done, they carry over that spirit in let-your-hair-down sit-downs together, songs sung altogether, teasing, playing pranks and telling stories together.
After a harrowing loss or stunning triumph or shock come-back victory, rugby players almost always display the traits of what it means to be a team.
This kind of spirit is unlike any other in team sport.
It should become part of the DNA of every team sport in Singapore.
Players in rugby teams fuse a remarkable bond that perhaps could one day lead to remarkable feats, and ensures lifelong relationships.
This is true whether you're a school player or club player, an All Black or Springbok, an English or Scottish rugby international, a Malaysian or Singapore player.
I was a witness when a powerful reminder of this spirit was served up last Saturday, as the fraternity came together to hail one of the greatest sporting feats in the country's history in a twin celebration at Safra Toa Payoh.
They were there to toast the national team's Malaysian Rugby Union (MRU) Cup triumphs of 1978 and 1982 and the launch of the book When We Were Kings by Godfrey Robert, the former sports editor of the Straits Times, who chronicled the golden era of the game here from 1972 to 1982.
Coach Natahar Bava was among the scrum, along with many of the players from the era, led by captain Jarmal Singh and Song Koon Poh, and everywhere you turned, whoever you talked to, it became clear that the unique bond first sown more than 40 years ago was very much alive among the heroes of the 1970s and early '80s.
INFECTIOUS AND INSPIRING
Why such a spirit exists almost naturally in the sport is a mystery, maybe being second best to football in terms of popularity, adulation and money has a role here, but rugby's unique team bond is infectious and inspiring.
It is the sport's way.
S. Thavaneson would agree with me.
One of four vice-presidents in the management committee of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), his company helped kit out the rugby teams of the '70s and '80s and after all the years, he told me on Saturday he was still in awe of those players because they were passionate about shedding blood, sweat and tears for team and country.
And for the love of the game.
Thava will agree that this should be the attitude of the national football team when they play in the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup because otherwise, they have no chance to do the country proud.
It should be the attitude all our athletes and teams show off.
Robert's book tells the story from 1978 of how Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian men from Singapore stood as one, first in the face of the haka, and then against the physically imposing New Zealand Forces team, and beat them in the semi-final in a stunning upset, going on to lift the MRU Cup for the first time in 44 years.
He reminds us that prop Song Koon Poh is the only athlete from a team sport to win the Singapore National Olympic Council's (SNOC) Sportsman of the Year award - the highest individual honour in local sport.
The book also documents an unprecedented hat-trick in 1978 as the national rugby side clinched Team of the Year honours and Bava was crowned Coach of the Year.
No Singapore team has climbed a similar peak.
It is a pity no one from the SNOC or Sport Singapore was there on Saturday, but I hope the national bodies will do more and tell generations of athletes the story of the legendary rugby sides from the sport's golden era.
So good were these men Singapore captured the MRU Cup once again in 1982, shocking the New Zealand Forces, again.
Under Bava, the players had to work like demons on their fitness, they never shirked that responsibility and the marriage of the coach's acumen, and his men's stamina, strength, undoubted talent and spirit - or semangat, as was so often touted on Saturday - led to many golden moments in the sport, including another first when Singapore finished third in the Asian Rugby Football Tournament in 1978.
Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam, the guest of honour at Saturday's event, saluted the rugby heroes and extolled the spirit that is always evident in special teams.
Like Mr Shanmugam, current Singapore Rugby Union president Terence Khoo gets it.
A gifted player and captain of the national team in the 1990s, he said on Saturday that Bava's winning teams set a blueprint to follow.
It is a compelling story, of a time when rugby men were kings, who set an example for Singapore sport to follow.
When We Were Kings is available at major bookshops (retail price $26.65).