Singapore rugby last reached its high 30 years ago. ERNEST LUIS finds out more about rugby’s ‘Malaysia Cup heroes’ as they celebrate their anniversary
WHAT the late great Uncle Choo Seng Quee was to Singapore football in the late 1970s, Natahar Bava was to rugby.
And if Singapore football boasted Quah Kim Song then, rugby had their own version in Song Koon Poh.
As a coach and a prop respectively, Bava and Song helped create history along with their team in 1978, when Singapore’s football came down from its high of winning the 1977 Malaysia Cup.
The Malaysian Rugby Union Cup followed on the HMS Malaya Cup, which had existed for 44 years then, but Bava, Song and their team won it for the first time, for Singapore on 24 Sep 1978.
They beat the Malaysian Armed Forces 19-3 in the final.
But the battle royale was in the semi-finals, when they beat the New Zealand Forces team – who were also defending champions – 11-6.
They also finished third in the Asian Rugby Tournament behind powerhouses Japan and South Korea then, beating Thailand 16-15, for Singapore’s best-ever international rugby showing.
At the sports awards in early 1979, Song was named the Sportsman of the Year for 1978, while Bava was the Coach of the Year, with the team being voted Team of the Year.
Bava, a 63-year-old retiree, recalled what gave his ‘rugby boys’ the edge over fellow team award nominees from water polo.
‘They had been winning at the South-east Asian level already all the time, and they were the favourites, so they had the facilities, and the allowances.
‘We were almost the opposite. Let me tell you how we went to Kuala Lumpur to win the MRU Cup in 1978.
‘Everyone paid $25, so we could take a train there and back in the first place.
‘And because we wanted to save on one night’s accommodation costs, we took the overnight train from Singapore, that would arrive in KL the next morning.
‘All these stories of adversity, and the kind of competition we faced, made our achievements stand out.’
Song, 54, a trader-broker in the petrol-chemical industry, captured the significance when he said: ‘Now, you say sportsmen get paid to play. We literally paid to play then.
‘We wanted to create history so badly.’
They won the MRU Cup again in 1982 before they all started going their separate ways after their playing careers had peaked. So what made Singapore’s other great Song such a rugby star?
Bava said: ‘When I was a teacher at Raffles Institution and he was playing for Victoria School, I knew that this boy at the age of 14 then, had the basic ingredient to be a national team player one day.
‘Because he was so focused, he played as if the outside world didn’t exist.
‘If he limped, he played on. He never once asked me to go easy in training.
‘Sometimes, players need to see that kind of team-mate at national level.’
On tonight’s 30th anniversary reunion dinner for the 1978 rugby team at Copthorne Orchid Hotel from 6.30pm, Song said: ‘I hadn’t seen Nat for 20 years till earlier this year. So we thought a reunion was a good idea, and soon, one ex-player got in touch with another and spread the word.
‘For the younger generation who might not relate to us, we’d just like to remind them through this story, that there was a rugby team in Singapore that did it before, and that the basic ingredients of hard work and perseverance still remain the same in sports after all these years.’
Let the rugby good times roll on indeed, for one more night at least.