A life in Rugby
Born and raised in Stoke-on-Trent near Manchester, I became a Welsh supporter (English mum, Welsh dad) in my teenage years after hearing the singing at Cardiff Arms Park.
Originally an open side flanker (in my younger, faster days), my favourite player was always Jean Pierre Rives. He was such a flamboyant and exciting player to watch and he always struck me as a non-conformist and, for someone as fiercely independent-minded as myself, that is a very attractive quality.
My favourite Welsh players since I started supporting them are probably Jonathan Davies, Bob Norster and Shane Williams, with special mention to Martyn Williams (mostly for having an excellent name but he was also a stellar player) and Gareth Thomas who was a very fine player and I admire him so much for the way he has been so forthright about sexuality and mental health issues, under extremely trying circumstances, thanks largely to the gutter press of The Sun and their ilk.
I first picked up a rugby ball at 9 years old when a new teacher re-introduced the game to our school after a hiatus of many years. After the first session, coming off the pitch muddier than the rest, I knew this was the game for me.
My introduction to club rugby was made by my uncle at 15 or 16 years old, running on for the wing for the local vets team (even though I was a flanker then), never having to put my hand in my pocket and coming home with a bellyful of beer each week.
I was the first player from my club to represent the county colts team in many a year and, using my friends from our school team as a player base, we reignited the club colts team and enjoyed some local success.
Throughout senior school and whilst studying at Bristol university, I continued to play and enjoy the game, but my life was transformed after I moved to Singapore in 1990. Fortunately, whilst watching the excellent SCC 7’s on the Padang two weeks after my arrival, I met the friendly guys & gals from the Bucks RFC and I’d found a new rugby home. The club was very eclectic in those days (as a club, we could order a beer in 24 different languages) with the emphasis very much on the social side of the game. I soon became involved in the organisation of the club as a few of the previous club stalwarts left shortly afterwards.
Recognising my interest in the game, and the fact that I had attended two Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) AGMs in succession, I was, to my complete surprise, nominated as one of the 3 vice-presidents in 1992. The SRU was completely amateur in those days, not so much as an administrator in sight, and I was quickly spotted as the naïve young upstart in the new committee and given the unenviable role of competitions manager, which involved arranging games, booking pitches and referees and dealing with the endless requests from the competing clubs, all whilst learning the ropes at my full-time job.
It was a very tough role but helped me get to know the local rugby scene in a way that would have been impossible otherwise.
Roll forward 28 years and I am now, once again, vice-president of the SRU (this is my third term holding the post, as I also held it during the leadership transition during the 2006/07 season).
Singapore rugby has come a long way since those early days and we now have a full-time executive staff who manage all the operational aspects of rugby here and a management committee that is both involved and committed.
Under the leadership of our current president, Terence Khoo, the SRU has re-organised and we have spent the last 3 years defining our objectives and developing policies and processes that will help us achieve them. The first couple of years we were distracted by the challenges of staging the HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens tournaments but, fortunately the whole event is now organized directly by Sport Singapore, leaving us time to focus more on our core duty of managing and developing the sport here.
To my mind, rugby is currently at a major crossroad, and I believe it cannot survive in its current form. The game has never completely come to terms with professionalism, and the spiraling costs and expectations that professionalism has created has not been matched by increased income (except in a few very limited cases), and sponsorship is increasingly difficult to come by.
There are a number of existential questions the game needs to answer before it can hope to move forward with any semblance of a coherent strategy and I don’t see those questions being debated (not publicly, at least). These include:
- Is it really necessary to develop rugby as a truly global game? It will never compete with the likes of football and very few sports achieve true globalism. Is it possible that the game would be better focusing on the local and regional rivalries that exist and really fire the imagination of the supporters in that way? (answers on a postcard please!)
- The international game is the main point of interest for many rugby supporters around the world, me included. If there is no coherent global & regional leadership and self-interests are allowed to perpetuate, the focal point of the game is diminished and the public is deprived of true competition where the best players are allowed to showcase their talents to the max.
In addition to the philosophical questions the game needs to answer, there are some more immediate practical issues to address, the prime one being, how can the game manage operational costs better? Rugby is in a perilous financial state throughout the world – only a few national unions were in strong financial shape pre-Covid, and England’s recent announcement about cutting their 7’s programme is a clear indicator of how the current crisis has impacted even the more wealthy unions. Bringing down costs is not the only solution but is one which should be addressed sooner rather than later. One simple solution would be to reduce the number of substitutes teams are allowed to use. Not only would this make the game safer and better (in my opinion), it would make it significantly cheaper to organize, as fewer players would need to travel to each game and the pressure on the (mostly voluntary) support systems would be reduced. To me, this is a no brainer.
Other issues and challenges are also ongoing. One which I’m particularly involved in at present is the introduction of a robust safeguarding policy, process and code of conduct which all who are involved in the game should abide by. Values are at the core of our sport and their roots run deep. We need to be proactive now to ensure they are not undermined by poor oversight.
We have seen locally, regionally and globally through sports such as athletics, ice skating and, most prominently, gymnastics, how damaging abuse of athletes can be, not only to the athletes themselves but to the reputation and viability of the sport itself. Through guidance set out by the International Olympic Commission, Sport Singapore has recently taken active leadership in developing the local Safe Sport programme, which all national sports bodies here in Singapore are now implementing. I am now a trained safeguarding officer and ready to respond to support players who may be victim of abuse within the sport. This role marries well with my recent career change.
After working for 25 years as a construction project manager, I decided to make a huge change in my life and I am now a full-time professional counsellor and have started my own company, Harmony Counselling. The skills I have developed as a counsellor are extremely helpful in providing empathetic, non-judgmental support to those who have
experienced harassment or abuse.
Other challenges lay ahead of us, including working with Asia Rugby to develop a clear and consistent international competitions calendar and, subsequently, organizing a more stable domestic rugby calendar. We are making good progress in these areas but there is still some way to go and always the next challenge to focus on beyond that.
As my playing career has now ended (except for the possibility of the occasional over 45s tournament), I am grateful for all rugby has given me over the years and am happy to have the opportunity to do my part in helping the game move forward in a way that embraces the new without losing the essential spirit of friendship and respect, which makes ours such a unique sport.
Martin Williams rugby career highlights:
- Captain, Newcastle (Staffs) Colts – 1984-86
- Player, Staffordshire Colts – 1985-86
- Player and committee member, Bucks RFC, 1990-2019 (including Club Captain, 2000-09 and President, 2011-17)
- Player, Singapore National Team, 1994-2004 (during that time I played in the Hong Kong 7’s (1994), won 35 full caps and played in 4 Asian Championships, winning the B Division title 3 times).
- Vice President, Singapore Rugby Union, 1992-93, 2006-07, 2017-present
- Playing tours – 95 (and counting…)