A member of the first local women’s rugby team, Ennie Toh, 41, is a pioneer of women’s rugby in Singapore. From being looked down on to being looked up to, Ennie’s journey as a female athlete in Singapore has undoubtedly paved the way for many other rugby enthusiasts.
“Such a silly game.”
That was Ennie’s initial response during her first exposure to rugby. “I remember walking past the Padang with my family and telling my dad, ‘Look at this silly bunch of people knocking into one another’,” she reminisced, while acknowledging the irony in her early dismissal of the sport.
Little did Ennie realise she would soon embark on a relationship with rugby that would last till this very day, and it all began when she was 19. “Maybe it’s my destiny,” Ennie mused. At the time, she was studying secretarial business and working as an assistant for a lecturer at the Nanyang Technological University. The same lecturer happened to be the consultant and coach for the national men’s rugby team then and he persuaded Ennie to help him out.
“I attended every training, helping with attendance, scrubbing the balls, getting all the jerseys ready, and so on,” recalled Ennie. “There was no women’s team then. In fact, the men’s rugby team was only limited to the boys in ACS [Anglo-Chinese School] and St Andrew’s.”
Until 1995 when a revamp was called to set up an office for the sport, the rugby union had been run by volunteers and part-time workers. With that, Ennie joined the committee as its first fulltime employee.
The first thing on the union’s agenda was to introduce rugby to people at the grassroots level, before expanding into schools. As Ennie worked on these plans with a few other developmental officers, she was inspired to establish a women’s team.
“Watching the men’s contact game, I thought, ‘Why can’t we do that too?’” Ennie said. With the help of one of the developmental officers who volunteered to coach the bunch of them, the first women’s team got together informally in 1996. That was also when Ennie began learning and playing the sport seriously.
In 1997, armed with next to no competitive experience and just six months of training, the women’s team headed for their first competition, the Hong Kong Sevens. Organised annually by the Hong Kong Rugby Union, the Hong Kong Sevens is considered a premier tournament in the World Rugby Sevens Series competition.
“It was really against all odds. We didn’t have any expectations, and no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” said Ennie. “We got a lot of media attention and interviews, but people were making fun of us. My position on the team then was hooker, so the radio interviewers would all be like, ‘Let’s welcome the national hooker!’”
Ennie remembered the poignant moment when she met the other big teams in Hong Kong. “New Zealand, Scotland… When you talk to them, you just get inspired. They’ve been playing the sport for 12 to 20 years, and some of them are actually grandmothers!” It was an eye-opening experience for them.
Try as they might, the Singapore women’s team did not win a single game at the tournament. They managed to score once, but that was only because one of her teammates managed to pick up a ball from an opponent’s misstep. From there, her teammate ran the 100 metres back to the line to score the try.
When it happened, the whole stadium stood up and cheered for them, Ennie recalled. Her eyes lit up as the memory came rushing back to her.
Galvanised by their experience at the Hong Kong Sevens, the girls found the courage to enter the Hat Yai International Sevens in Thailand in the official capacity of a national women’s team at the end of 1997. That year was the first time Thailand included a women’s segment. It was a tough fight as they were up against seasoned players. In a classic David-versus-Goliath matchup, the team managed to emerge victorious in the finals against Thailand.
Media coverage of Ennie in 1997. Photo courtesy of Ennie Toh
Being the only women’s team at the time, Ennie and her teammates had to train with the national under-18 boys’ team to prepare for upcoming competitions.
“We were always waiting for school teams to play against us,” said Ennie with a laugh. “And even then, they were told to go easy on us, and not tackle us full-on. It was an advantage, but for us we were, like, whatever, we’re just going to whack you.”
Ennie (bottom row, middle) with her team in 1997, at the Rugby World Cup Sevens held in Hong Kong. Because support and sponsors were hard to come by then, in this picture, the women’s team were wearing hand-me-downs from the national under-18 boys’ team. Photo courtesy of Ennie Toh
She recalled 2003 as a significant year for the team, as their dedication to the sport was tested amidst pressing concern and fears over the SARS outbreak.
“At that point in time when SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] broke out, the disease was still very new. Nobody knew the extent of it, and there was a lot of pressure on us because we were still going ahead for the Hong Kong Sevens.”
Media coverage of the team when they played in Hong Kong despite the SARS outbreak. Source: Lian He Zao Bao, 2003. Photo courtesy of Ennie Toh
“We had a lot of press conferences and media involvement because people were asking, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you risking your life for the sport?’”
In the face of such intense media pressure, Ennie shared that the team looked out for one another more than ever. The criticisms united the team and they were determined to prove their doubters wrong. They wanted to make sure that that they didn’t fly all the way to Hong Kong for naught.
“We came back second in Asia, which the national team had never achieved before—even the men’s. It was an emotional year for us.” Ennie gushed with pride at their achievement.
Due to an injury, Ennie has stopped playing rugby competitively. However, she is still active in the rugby scene, assisting in managing the national teams. Working in World Sport Group today, she is also heavily involved in events marketing and management for a myriad of sports. Looking back on the years that she spent on rugby, from reforming the public’s perception of rugby as being a men-only sport to pushing for the inclusion of the sport in the school curriculum, Ennie said with a smile, “I’m glad to have been there to witness all the milestones of rugby in Singapore.”
Written by: FJ Sai
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