Saturday, November 5, 2011


When the rugby field fell silent

HE would be on the field by 6.45am although training was supposed to start at eight. A case of the coach turning up well before the players.
Sharp 8am, training would start, ending some three hours later. While the players hit the showers and get ready for afternoon school, the coach would prepare for another training session – this time for boys who had attended morning school. The second training stint would end at 6pm. Only after all the players had left, would he take the route home, driving through the heavy after-office traffic. By the time he got back home in Sentul, it would be close to 8pm.
And the next day, all that would be repeated – a demanding routine even for the young. But not for Hang Kek Kang although he was already in his 60s. A former army man from Langkawi, who in his own words was “passionate over rugby”. Needless to say, he played the game during his schooldays in Kedah, when he was in the army, and even after retiring.
In 1991, Hang was sent by Cobra to reorganise rugby in Kuala Lumpur’s St John’s Institution. The school had a rich history in rugby but somehow the sport faded away in the 1980s.
Under the Cobra rugby development programme, Hang was to “sort things out” and return to Cobra for other assignments. But he stayed on as he felt all the “sorting out” would come to nought without a coach to see things through. So began his relationship with the school.
To say his responsibilities as coach were heavy is an understatement. Every year, there would be at least 50 boys of different ages, ability and knowledge of the game under his charge. Everything and everybody required his close attention. One coach for 50 boys – somehow the equation wasn’t right.
And the situation got worse when the different age teams played simultaneously in tournaments and Hang was expected to be with the players.
Rugby at St John’s took a lot of his time. And what he was paid was certainly not enough to compensate for the sacrifices. And when his teams were invited to tournaments, he would look high and low for support. So why do all this, I asked him once. “For me, as long as there are boys who play rugby, I would be happy. When I do this, there will always be boys taking up the game and rugby will be alive in this country”. That was his reply.
Hence, rain or shine, he would be on the field, planning game strategy, putting his boys through the paces, imparting the rules of the game. With his heavy Kedah Malay accent “mixed” with English, he could be heard from far giving out instructions.
But in April this year, he slowed down, literally. He coughed badly, and for weeks on end. He still ran training sessions and attended games. But he tired easily. Not too long after, training sessions were “suspended”. Hang had to go for treatment and was in and out of hospital. Tests confirmed that he was suffering from liver cancer.
He kept it from his family and his players. He didn’t want them to see them worried. Four days after Hari Raya, I visited him at his Taman Datuk Senu home, and my three sons came along. All three play rugby and it was Hang who had introduced them to the game.
We spoke about many things and of course rugby – the World Cup in New Zealand which was to kick off in a few days. But he couldn’t stop thinking of his team despite his illness. He was worried about who would take care of his boys especially the Under-15 team which was to play in the national championship later this year.
He said that if he wasn’t sick, he would have gone to the prime minister’s Hari Raya open house and “whisper to Najib to come up with a fund” for the St John’s rugby team. The money, he said, would enable the team to take part in tournaments all over the country.
He never knew the PM personally but Coach Hang wanted to make an appeal to Datuk Seri Najib Razak who was a former St John’s student. In 2005, Najib provided financial aid to the school’s rugby team for several sets of jerseys and other gear.
Ten days after meeting Coach Hang at his house, I received the sad news. He was 65. And on Wednesday, Sept 14, he was cremated.
There can never be another Coach Hang Kek Kang. You will be missed, my friend. We love you.


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