China pride too much for Fiji imports

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am

It's back to the drawing board for Malaysia after 'foreign legion' crashes out

Fed up with being a bunch of losers, Malaysia embarked on an ambitious programme of importing players from Fiji in the hope they would lift their adopted country into a first World Cup Sevens appearance. Those hopes were dashed by China, who beat them 19-12 in a crucial pool decider yesterday.

It will be back to the drawing board for Malaysian officials who had pinned their hopes on the foreign legion lifting the stock of the game back home.

Six of the Malaysian team who ran on to the field were from Fiji.

'We can't forever be the boys who are beaten,' Velayuthan Tan, manager of the Malaysian team, said before the tournament began. 'The public back home will lose interest and that will be bad for the game.

'By bringing in foreign players, we hope to qualify for next year's World Cup and this will raise the profile of our rugby.'

But China proved that home-grown players who are playing with pride for flag and country can be more than a match for a bunch of professionals. The defeat showed fundamental flaws in Malaysia's programme, but Tan insisted it was the way to go.

Malaysia stunned Asian rugby circles when they turned up at the Sri Lanka Sevens last month with a squad comprising half a dozen Fijians and easily dominated, winning the final against South Korea 31-21.

'We have not done anything wrong. We have fully complied with the international rules and in fact we are just doing what Japan and other teams are doing. Why is everyone concerned when this has been going on for a long time?' asked Tan.

'The game is global today. You get players moving from one country to another. As long as we don't break the rules, we should not be denied the opportunity to field foreign players.'

The International Rugby Board's eligibility rules allow a country to field a foreign player if he has been resident for more than three years. All the Fijians in the Malaysian team have lived in the country for more than 36 months, according to Tan.

'They are all eligible,' said Hong Kong Rugby Football Union executive director Allan Payne. 'IRB officials who are in Hong Kong have looked into the matter and cleared them to play.'

Asian powerhouses Japan have a strong corporate league structure and these companies, with the blessings of the Japan Rugby Union, have aggressively recruited players from the southern hemisphere for more than a decade.

The Japanese team in Hong Kong are fielding three overseas-born players: New Zealander Michael Leitch and Tongans Lokotai Siupeli and Mafileo Sione.

In Malaysia, the Sabah Rugby Union set the trend when they started recruiting Fijians as player-coaches. This has caught on and now a number of clubs in the first division are employing foreign players.

'At the moment we have around 20 or so players from Fiji and Samoa in Malaysia,' said Tan. 'They play as well as coach and their presence not only helps in the development of the game, they will also motivate the younger generation to play. By nature, our local players lack the physical size and skills. But hopefully by playing against bigger and better players, the skill levels will improve.'

The Fijian influx has not rubbed off on 15s yet. At this year's Asian Five Nations second division tournament, they fielded only one Fijian in the 22-strong squad. But with an eye on the World Cup in Dubai next year, plans had been set in place as far back as seven years ago to include the talented islanders in the hunt for a first-ever appearance at a World Cup. It did not materialise.

Malaysia, captained by Lee Wei Meng, the token domestic player in the team, defeated Guam 37-5 in their opening pool game, but a litany of mistakes saw them come unstuck against China.

Tan refused to feel downhearted. 'The fans are slowly starting to come back,' he said.

'They have no complaints about the foreign players. There is interest in rugby again. And we hope in the long term, the presence of the Fijians will lift the standards of the game and it will trickle down through the system.'

Islander influx

Fijian players who ran out for Malaysia yesterday: 6