After more than 70 years in existence, rugby union is snowballing in almost all regions of the world. The inauguration of a professional rugby championship in the USA is a huge milestone for the game. Finally the American cliché of blokes running onto the field wearing multi sized “tampons” under their shirts, with helmets and cagey visors, skinny three-quarter pants crashing into each other with the fluidity of a falling rock is slowly being challenged.
Real men, with the protection of a thin layer of a jersey, with shorts and bare skin, barrel into each other whilst keeping the oval ball fluidly moving from one person to the other brings about a sense disbelieve to the Americans. It also brings about a diabolical sense of oddity especially when the men, who were then so robust in the field, take turn to shake hands and hug each other when the game is over. That is rugby.
Such level of respect is unprecedented in any kind of contact sport; especially one that involves full body clashes into the opponent. In Europe, where rugby gets the best viewer’s presence, influx of the world’s best players have provided a spectacle of multi-level championships. Corporate sponsorships and professional management of teams meant that players could actually become rich by playing rugby, something we never imagined just a decade ago.
Back home in Malaysia, rugby has evolved into a serious sport. From what was a game introduced by the colonials more than 60 years ago, only played in selected schools and institutions, rugby has garnered enough public interest to earn a spot in the nation’s sports development programme. Children as early as 8 years old are playing certain amount of rugby somewhere. Parents, especially those bred in the rugby community, are significantly more supportive of the sport. Inter-school games are usually “furnished” with a strong presence of parents who are there to back their offspring. Rugby development programme in schools function as a feeder for able players that will eventually play for the nation. The national teams, 15’s and 7’s have earned a reputable name within the region and is no longer a total washout when going against the likes of Sri Lanka, Emirates and Taiwan.
However, 2019 is a year when Malaysian rugby re-evaluates itself. With the positive progress of the national development programme in the recent years, combined with an experimental new format of the national league and presence of corporate sponsors; Malaysia 7’s national team went against the world’s best in the Commonwealth Games, and Malaysia 15’s met their biggest obstacle in the ARC Premier division in 2018. Both teams provided significant level of presence in both tournaments. The 7’s boys were routed in Brisbane, albeit by South Africa and Scotland nonetheless, and provided a level of game where they could beat any team in the Asian region on a good day. The 15’s team however; have met their usual wall. The best of Asia was there for Malaysia to test themselves against, and we failed to rock the boat. More work to be done there.
The local scene has seen much progress from the previous years. The current restructuring of the local tournaments is expected to bring about change to the composition of teams and available players. Skewing towards the end of the year, the national super league runs after the conclusion of the state leagues. Some ardent local supporters rue the changes for fear that it will create too long a season for potential national players. Some favour the changes because of the possibility of new talents shining out, especially for school and university leavers.
The nation is yet to own a rugby stadium. To many, a stadium designated for rugby will signify the seriousness of the sport, unlike its previous frivolous nature. Traditional rugby grounds such as the varsity fields of UPM, UM and UTM as well as school’s fields like SMSS’s Wembley, MCKK’s big field and VI greens have provided limited but sufficient service in the current years. “Borrowed” grounds such as the soccer stadiums made rugby games more enticing, but with little homage. For rugby in Malaysia to progress into a more visible stature amongst the public, the nation needs a stadium where local fans can identify as Malaysia’s rugby home.