The rugby bug has well and truly caught on in Malaysia, but how did it all start? In the beginning rugby was introduced to Malaya in the late nineteenth century. In the early years the game was only played by expatriates, however in 1921 local players became involved, a national union was formed and the sport has seen a steady growth ever since. For an interesting account of the early years read Rugby : A Malaysian Chapter, by Ng Peng Kong.
In Sabah, the first rugby team in was created in the 1950’s by planters in Tawau, and Tawau RFC is still one of Sabah’s strongest teams. Following from Tawau clubs were formed in Sandakan, Kota Kinabalu, Kudat, and Labuan and in the 1970’s the sport of rugby really took off, and there were tournaments such as the 7-a-side Cambell Cup, the Interport Trophy, the Sabah Students Inter-Residency Rugby Competion, the Sabah State Championship, and the Borneo Cup (between Sabah, Brunei and Sarawak).
Rugby in Sabah is booming, as it is around the world where global participation in the sport has grown by 19 per cent since the 2007 World Cup. More than five million men, women and children in some 117 countries now play the game, and a recent study found growth of 18 per cent in Asia, mostly buoyed by the successful Sevens World Series and the format’s inclusion in the 2016 Olympics.
By now in Malaysia there are sixteen unions, associations and councils affiliated to the Malaysian Rugby Union with over 10,000 active players representing more than 300 clubs and 600 schools throughout the entire country.
Here in Sabah, the Sandakan based Borneo Eagles have won many prestigious international tournaments and Sabah itself has one of the strongest state rugby teams in Malaysia. Sabah contributed players recently to important Malaysian wins at the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) Under-20 Sevens in Johor Baru, and to the senior XV national men’s team promotion to Division 1 of the Asian 5 Nations.
Women also play the game and the Malaysian women’s national team competed for the first time in 2009, also featuring players from Sabah, and with support from the MRU (Malaysian Rugby Union) Malaysian women have joined the Asian Women’s Sevens Championships.
Thanks to this initial growth and enthusiasm for the game the sport has taken root in Sabah, especially here in Kota Kinabalu, where there are many school teams, varsity teams and clubs: Maktab, La Salle, All Saints, St Michaels, SANZAC, KK High School, SMESH, MRSM, UiTM, UMS, Polytechnic, Penampang Panthers, OSCA, KK Sharks, Sabah Warriors, Armed Forces, Prisons. In addition there are teams in Sandakan, Tawau, Kudat, Sipitang, Lahad Datu, Keningau, and Ranau.
Today, under the leadership of the Sabah Rugby Union (SRU) rugby is developing nicely. The aim over the next 5 years is to ensure that Sabah have rugby fields, equipments and facilities for rugby, as well as coaching expertise, high school participation, and numerous important fixtures and tournaments throughout the year for the local teams, schools, and public to participate in.
With support from the government and the business community these goals are achievable, and many rugby enthusiasts are ready to assist in taking up the challenge so that Sabah may become a “Land of Rugby”.