Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Loving a game that he once disliked

NIK Safuan Ismade Nik Man knew nothing about rugby during his school days as his forte then was track and field. A talented long distance runner in Pahang, he disliked rugby as he felt it was a dangerous sport.

However, the Kuala Lipis-born athlete grew to love the game after he joined Kuala Lumpur City Hall at 19.

Now, the talented forward will captain the national rugby sevens team in the New Delhi Commonwealth Games.

"I picked up rugby when I joined City Hall as an employee. I must thank former national player Rusli Ramli for introducing me to the game," said Nik Safuan.

"I represented Bandaraya Dragons then. Four years after taking up the sport, I was selected to represent the country and I've been doing so ever since."
Like his teammates, it will also be Nik Safuan's first experience of Commonwealth Games rugby.

The national rugby sevens side are among the top four ranked teams in Asia but are still far behind world class teams like New Zealand, Australia, England, Fiji and Samoa in the sevens game.

"We have been doing great over the past two years in Asia but it will be tough in New Delhi. Our priority in the Commonwealth Games is to gain experience ahead of the Asian Games (in Guangzhou), where we stand a good chance of a medal," added the 30-year-old.

The national sevens side forced Asia's traditional powerhouses to take notice of them after a sterling performance in the 2008 Sri Lanka Airlines Sevens, where the team bagged the country's first ever rugby title.

Buoyed by that success, the team went on to win the Asian Rugby Sevens Brunei leg before finishing fourth in the Borneo leg, both last year.

It has also been a memorable season so far this year. The team started their 2010 international campaign by finishing second to South Korea and in a pre-Commonwealth Games competition in New Delhi in April.

Recently they made history by recording their first ever victory over Asian giants Japan en route to finishing fourth in the prestigious Shanghai Sevens.

Assistant team manager K.H Tan said Asian countries regarded Malaysia as the continent's emerging force.

"Many top coaches and officials, even those attached with the International Rugby Board, have praised our team. According to them, our players are improving," said Tan.

"It is certainly good news that the region's rugby fraternity is slowly starting to respect the Malaysian team. We have improved because we put to practice the scientific aspects of modern training.

"My players are bigger, stronger and fitter compared to before. They are also not afraid of taking on physically bigger opponents as they have been playing regularly with foreign players of late."

On their preparation for the Commonwealth Games, Tan said the team started intensive training last month.

"About 20 players were selected for training in Sandakan last month before the Shanghai Sevens. They had a good time as they sparred with the local Fijian trainers," said Tan.

"The biggest challenge in Malaysian rugby is getting players train as one unit on a regular basis.

"However, thankfully, most players in the training squad, are attending regular training," he said.

Malaysia, however, will have a big fight on their hands as they have been drawn in Group C with IRB Sevens World Series champions Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Kenya.

Read more: NST/

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