By Rich Freeman
Anyone who watched Inoke Afeaki play for Tonga, the Hurricanes and club sides in Japan, Wales and France will know he is no shrinking violet.
Standing 6ft 6ins and weighing in at 278 pounds, Afeaki was an imposing figure who led by example on the field and was an eloquent speaker at post-match press conferences. Now as technical director at the Singapore Rugby Union, the 40-year-old is combining those two skills in an effort to lift the island state up the IRB World Rankings.
Indeed, he seems to be on the right track as the recent 30-12 win over the United Arab Emirates showed. The victory means Singapore will play in Division 1 next season of the revamped Asian 5 Nations, while the UAE drop two levels to Division 2, having played in the top flight last season.
“That was reward for a good couple of months of focus,” said Afeaki, who has been based in Singapore since 2112. “We are working hard to be fit and it paid dividends.”
Nearly half senior team are locals
Perhaps more telling, though, was the make-up of the two teams, with nearly half of the Singapore side being local players.
“The Singaporean players were as good as the expats. You couldn’t really tell the difference,” said UAE captain Adam Telford after the game.
It’s a point not lost on Afeaki, who said from the word go that he was keen to carry on and develop the Singapore tradition of using local players, rather than needing to outsource for talent.
“One of the things we needed to do was to get the local population to buy into it so they go ‘Wow! Rugby’. In the past not many people knew about Rugby but they do now. The taxi drivers here talk about the All Blacks. The sport is on TV more and more and we even had a TV drama recently featuring a well-known actress that was all about Rugby.”
As with all emerging Rugby nations, though, the key is getting the sport introduced at schools.
Rugby has a great teaching philosophy
“We’re trying to take the game to the schools but it is a contact sport and some of the parents get worried. We need to win over the confidence of parents and school principals,” he said. “But Rugby has a great teaching philosophy and we make sure they learn the techniques to stay safe. We have introduced tag Rugby and it is now part of the curriculum and gives the kids a taste of the game as well as developing their fundamental movements.”
When asked whether Asian players could realistically compete with the best in the world, Afeaki said: “I see a lot of guys here who are bigger than me. There are some really big Malay boys. The problem is many of them don’t play sport and get fat. If Rugby can capture and inspire them at a young age so that they stay in the sport, they will become very strong men.
“Look at the northern hemisphere. Around 80 per cent of the players aren’t great athletes. They are just big lumps but they train a lot and refine their skills… As technical director, my main job is to stay focussed on the performance side of things. I think we have ticked all the boxes.”
The holder of a BSc. in physiology from New Zealand’s Victoria University and a sports science post-graduate degree in sports notation from Swansea University, Wales, Afeaki is also keen to use his background in helping to develop the sport.
“I am from the world of science, which is all about being an observer,” he said. “I wasn’t the most skilful player but I learned how to do things from listening to some very good coaches and now I am keen to teach others.”
All the right ingredients
Afeaki said Singapore had all the right ingredients to help develop the game at the grassroots level and to provide the best possible support for the national team.
“Singapore is full of former players, coaches, staff and physios who were part of the professional game and who want to be involved. We have a lot of resources to tap into,” he said.
One such individual is former England forward James Forrester, who now coaches the national team.
“I wanted to find the right people and in James and (his assistant) Casey Mee, who I toured Japan with back in 1997 with New Zealand Universities, I have found them. We also have our local coaching staff.”
With Singapore set to host the World Club 10s in its brand new stadium in June and the island among those being considered for a Super Rugby franchise as well as having submitted a bid to host a round of the popular HSBC Sevens World Series from 2015-16, it would seem Rugby really is on the rise.
“The only restriction we have here is that the players are amateur,” Afeaki said. “We can’t pay them enough at the moment so they can give up their jobs. The lads haven’t reached their full potential. There is a lot of work to be done but we have the right people involved.”
This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartlands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about Rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Rich Freeman