SIBU: Rugby has always been regarded as one of the toughest sports.
The robust nature of the game is certainly not for the faint hearted which could also help explain why its level of popularity has remained limited.
However, in recent years, the sport has grown across the globe.
The 2019 World Cup held in Japan was an eye-opener with the host country, previously considered minnows, qualifying for the quarter-finals.
The South African Springboks eventually stunned favorites England 32-12 to lift their third World Cup.
Originating in England in the first half of the 19th Century, rugby is a contact team sport in which players grab the oval-shaped ball and surge for a try.
Each team can carry, pass or kick the ball to the end zone to score as many points as possible.
The two teams play for two 40-minute halves.
In Malaysia, rugby has been played in the past decades with Malaysia Rugby (formerly Malaysia Rugby Union) playing an integral part in developing the sport.
It was founded in 1921 and joined the International Rugby Football Board, later known as the International Rugby Board and now as World Rugby, in 1988.
Malaysia Rugby organises the annual Malaysia Sevens tournament which has become one of the celebrated rugby events in the country.
In Sibu, rugby had never been a very popular sport.
However, in the 1990s, things began to change, partly due to the contributions of the Ting brothers – Jeffery, Michael and Anthony – who led the Sibu Division Rugby Union (SDRU) through thick and thin.
The three brothers have been working round the clock to revive and revitalise the sport once made popular by Sacred Heart School principal Bro Albinus in the 1970s.
Rugby is currently taking on a different shape and entering a new dimension not only in the central region of Sarawak but throughout the state.
“Rugby has become a great sport and has generated huge global attention nowadays with more and more people jumping on the bandwagon to enjoy the thrill and excitement of the game,” Michael told thesundaypost.
According to Ting, SRDU started to function in 1984 and was officially registered in 1985 with former SMK Sacred Heart student Stephen Chung elected as its first president, assisted by secretary Joseph Moh.
Stephen helmed SDRU until 1990 when another former SMK Sacred Heart student and rugby stalwart Ambrose Chung took over the presidency, assisted by Michael.
In 1992, Jeffery became the president before passing the baton to his younger brother Anthony in 2013.
Over the years, through its long colourful history, SDRU encountered many ups and downs.
In 1992, Michael was the first to be appointed as chief coach for Sarawak at the Malaysia Games (Sukma).
“It was a clarion call from the State Sports Council and the appointment, which was a shot in the arm for SDRU, also came with heavy responsibilities,” he recalled.
The three brothers worked together relentlessly to put together a formidable squad.
Jeffery was team manager, Michael was coach while Anthony played as team captain.
The big breakthrough came when Sarawak unexpectedly won the rugby gold medal in the 1992 Johor Sukma.
It was a moment to cherish and the win helped to raise the profile of the sport.
Sarawak continued to compete in rugby in later editions of Sukma but the state never tasted final victory again.
The closest it came was emerging as bowl champions in 2006 and 2008.
Michael attributed the change in game format from 15 to 7 a-side as the main reason why Sarawak could not land the coveted gold again.
“Sarawak players are generally not as strong and powerful as West Malaysian players when it comes to the 7 a-side.
Hopefully, with a new generation of players training under the current state Sukma head coach Nacani Seniu, a former Fiji national, we hope to make the difference that one day Sarawak will be able to bring back the elusive rugby gold medal for both the men and women teams,” he said.
The Sukma outings, Michael believes, has inspired many students to take up the sport from across the state.
“More and more divisions came up with their own rugby clubs while, at the schools level, many rugby clubs were also formed,” he observed and added that many competitions were also organised throughout the year.
Most notably are the 10-a-side Br Albinus Cup, Br Columba Cup, Bernard Ting-Allan Richard Wan-Moh Ung Bing 15 a-side Memorial Cup, Inter-Division Schools Championship and President’s Cup.
Others include Mukah 10’s, Hornbill 7’s, Bintulu 7’s, Miri Curtin 10’s, Kuching 10’s, Labuan 10’s and Baram Cup.
The Br Albinus Cup, for instance, had grown to become SDRU’s premier event.
It started off as a men’s event but was expanded to include women and boy’s U-18 categories.
Emergence of teams
In the early 1990s, only three teams – Kuching Division Rugby Club, SDRU and Miri Division Rugby Union – were active before Bintulu Division Rugby Club joined the ranks in the early 2000s.
Today, there are many big clubs joining the fray such as Kuching Warrior Old Boys, Kuching Wolfpack, Miri Flying Nomads, Mukah Swiflets, Baram Rhinos and Miri Piranhas.
Well known women’s teams include the Lettho Rhinos and ATM ladies.
At the school level, SMK Sacred Heart is the pioneer while others like SMK Sedaya from Kanowit and several schools from Kuching are also getting stronger and carving their names in the sport. SMK Sedaya has emerged as a top school in producing teams for both boys and girls.
Then there are clubs from tertiary institutions like UNIMAS, UiTM, Politeknik Kuching, Kolej Vokasional Sibu and Mukah Polytechnic.
“It was history re-written,” Michael said as getting teams to participate in any tournament was no longer an issue
Tournaments could now easily attract more than 10 teams, thanks to the hardworking rugby affiliates.
“The signs are there. With more competitions, it will be easier for us to scout for more talented players,” Michael revealed.
The state women’s team are also showing vast improvement and making an impact.
In July 2019, both the men’s and women’s U-21 squads each won the silver at the Perlis Royal Seven.
“The two silver medals were unexpected. It was not only a welcoming news but was testimony that Sarawak is on its way to become a rugby powerhouse in the country,” Michael said.
It certainly augurs well for the development of rugby in Sarawak.