Last month, two Singaporean schoolboys Marcus Ng and Muhammad Nur Solihin Bin Mansor – had the adventure of their lives.
This is because the two schoolboys had impressed former New Zealand Sevens star, Scott Waldron, together with a selection panel – in trials held in November last year. So they earned themselves a trip to Wellington, New Zealand, home of the All Blacks – the world champions in rugby. Their 16-day trip to New Zealand was a part of the Heroes in the Making programme by the Singapore Rugby Union and the Rugby Singapore.
Being selected had been a shock
To the boys, their initial successful selection had been a shock to them.
Explained Solihin, 17, a Year Four Express student from Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), “At first my coaches had told me that I was not selected and asked me if I knew my flaws in rugby in a sorry yet serious tone. But towards the end of the meeting, they told me they were kidding and I was one of the two chosen out of the 20 nominees. I was in great shock at that moment and at the same time, felt blessed for this opportunity.”
Added Marcus, 17, a final-year student at PSV Academy, “I think that our coaches had wanted us to feel sad at first and not take things for granted, before breaking the news to us.”
Chaperoned by former Hurricanes player Alex Telea
In Wellington, the two boys stayed with and were chaperoned by former Samoa international and ex-Hurricanes player Alex Telea. They also took part in training sessions with world class coaches and teams, such as the Petone Rugby Football Club – which has a storied history that dates back to 1885 and has produced over 30 international All Blacks including Tana Umaga.
They also had the chance to visit the Wellington Rugby academy and the Hurricanes training base. Super Rugby side, Hurricanes, had several members in last year’s triumphant All Blacks team, including Julian Savea, Dane Coles and Victor Vitto. The late Jonah Lomu, a former All Blacks star had also played for Wellington.
Everything was unrealEverything about the trip had been completely unreal to the two boys. Said Sohilin, “It was totally unreal and heartwarming to see so many people there playing rugby. I see every rugby field being occupied by teams playing a match. It was tough to be training almost every day but it made me realise that the amount of effort the Kiwis put in has definitely benefited them, New Zealand being the land of rugby and the world champions.”
He added, “I also found out that over 600 fields are being used to host matches every Saturday morning around Wellington. And I was impressed that the Wellington Representatives team trains so early, at 7am in the morning.”
Besides participating in training sessions, the boys also had the chance to showcase their skills, as part of the Hutt Valley High School team. They played against Walnui College and St Pats Town – and Marcus managed to score a try in both games.
Said Marcus, “It was much more exciting than playing rugby in Singapore – for starters, how they maintain the grass in New Zealand is amazing; it is lovely to play on and you do not see pockets or holes in the field. The players are also much more aggressive than in Singapore and you can see that they really want to play rugby, even at the schools level. It is obvious that they put in 100 per cent effort and seize all the opportunities that come their way.”
Haka was a culture shock
But the biggest culture shock to Marcus though, had been witnessing the famous Kiwi Haka in the flesh – especially amongst the college level players.
Many rugby fans will be familiar with the Haka – a traditional Maori war cry that is commonly performed by the New Zealand rugby players.
Said Marcus, “I did not expect them to be doing the Haka at college level. I didn’t participate in it – I just watched, and even just by standing on the sidelines, I could really feel the tension. It was an amazing experience but quite scary at the same time.”
Living with Telea also was an eye opener according to Marcus. He said, “He is working as a personal trainer so he gets up at 6am to go to the gym every day and trains for two hours. His gym is very different to what we are used to in Singapore – instead of the standard weights, he creates his own ones using equipment he finds from construction sites.”
For example some of Telea’s exercises include flipping tyres and ropes. Said Marcus, “It was an eye opener because I have never done such training, and at such a high intensity too.”
Marcus also found it an eye opener that rugby players in New Zealand train six times a week. He said, “The college rugby players around my age go to school like us, but their school ends earlier, and on the days that they have no official rugby training, they will take the initiative to create their own games against other school players. It is very normal to go to the neighbourhoods and play rugby in the field with their friends.”Added Solihin, “Unlike Singapore, there is not much to do after 5pm when the sun sets. But that does not stop the people there to stop training; in fact I trained with a local rugby team at 7pm.”
Chance to meet the All Blacks World Cup champions
But the highlight of the trip to the boys was probably the chance to catch the world champions, the All Blacks, in action behind closed doors, before the team’s Test match against Wales.
The duo also watched the All Blacks beating Wales 46-6 at the Westpac Stadium and joined 180 youths at the Under-16s trials on the 12th day of their trip.
Said Sohilin, “I never imagined meeting the world champions in person. What’s more, getting to take photos with them, getting their autographs and having a few words with them. Would have loved to train with them but watching them train and play live was already spectacular enough.”
Added Marcus, “My mind was blank when I came face to face with them. I have seen them countless times on TV but they are much taller and bigger in real person. It’s like oh my gosh, they are actually like, 1.9 metres tall. But they are really nice guys though, and despite being big, they are soft spoken and will say “hi” to you even if you are a stranger. It made me feel really welcome to be in their presence.”Marcus continued, “They may be World Champions, but they really put in the effort during their sessions. What I have learnt is that even for the basic stuff, you should be able to do it to perfection.”
Out of the All Blacks players, Beauden Barrett was one that had impressed both of the boys in particular. Said Marcus, “He is really hardworking and he does not slack off.”
Added Sohilin, “Barrett, as well as Ardie Savea and Aaron Smith had all made me realise that being the smallest or youngest in the team should not stop me from pursuing my dream of being a great rugby player.”
Plenty of takeaways from their time in New Zealand
And now that they are back in Singapore, the boys have plenty of takeaways from their time in New Zealand and with the All Blacks.
Said Sohilin, “The difference between rugby in Singapore and New Zealand, lies in the quality and dedication showed, whether it is the All Blacks or their club or youth players. One difference I noticed between us and the Kiwi players is that they really support each other, be it in training or competition. Also rugby is a big part of the Kiwis’ lives and you see rugby posters, matches and pick up games everywhere so that really makes a difference.”He added, “Now back in Singapore, I will show my opponents what I have learnt in New Zealand both on and off the field – to be feisty when in play and humble when off the field.”
After the trip to New Zealand, Marcus also realised the need to constantly improve on his rugby and keep on getting better. He said, “I have been inspired to play better rugby and I have realised that even though you are good, there is always someone out there who will be better than you – so you have to keep working hard.”
He added, “I also learnt from Telea to make the most of my time available. For example, if you have had a very busy day, then you can still do for example, squats when you are showering or do sit-ups before you go to bed. Its better than nothing and probably something that I had never thought of before.”