Royal Bees face fresh SEA Games challenge

Fadhil Yunus

The Brunei Darussalam national netball team or affectionately known as the Royal Bees will embark on a fresh challenge in revisiting the success of a podium finish in the upcoming 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Manila, the Philippines later this year.

The team will be under the tutelage of Jane Searle, who returned as head coach since assuming the role ahead of the Asian Netball Championships (ANC) last year.

It will be the Australian’s first appearance in the Southeast Asian Games for a nation looking to maintain their status in the top four.

While netballing leaders Singapore and Malaysia will simply be too strong at this level, the race for bronze will be between Thailand and Brunei Darussalam with the much-improved Philippines also in the picture.

Only Sri Lanka could rival the netball giants Singapore and Malaysia at the continental level while Hong Kong has been a mainstay in the semi-finals in the Asian Championships.

Her Royal Highness Princess Fadzilah Lubabul Bolkiah during a match between the Royal Bees and Netfit Netball. PHOTOS: RAHWANI ZAHARI
Royal Bees Coach Jane Searle
To avoid rustiness without competition normally associated in the sport, the Royal Bees have also taken part in exposure series games where they sparred in friendly matches against local clubs in Singapore and Melbourne

Brunei have captured bronze in the last two editions of the SEA Games in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur but hosts the Philippines are slowly catching up in the Asean region.

With the SEA Games in mind, the national team was busy and active throughout the year with Arafura Games in Darwin, Australia serving as a major competition.

To avoid rustiness without competition normally associated in the sport, they have also participated in exposure series games where they sparred in friendly matches against local clubs in Singapore and Melbourne, the latter of whom best represented the pinnacle of netball.

With the Royal Bees not engaged in international commitments after the Asian Championships, Searle was away for a few months and only returned to prepare the squad in time for the Arafura Games.

“I haven’t been here (Brunei) for the whole year. I have only just been here intermittently. I was here in March for the Arafura Games which was in April and May in Darwin”, said Jane Searle in an interview during one of the training sessions at the Indoor Stadium of the Hassanal Bolkiah National Sports Complex.

“There, they were pretty raw as I haven’t done a lot of preparations. I think from the previous year they probably lost a lot of skilled work because they haven’t had anyone keeping them training.”

Searle also took the reins on the Under-21 team which competed in the Asian Youth Netball Championships (AYNC) in Japan in June. Nevertheless, work with the senior setup was in full swing once the under-21 team ended their Japan stint.

“In July, the national team has been training pretty much full time since then. In that time, we had two exposure series. We had one in Singapore and one in Melbourne.”

The Australian netball tactician could now dedicate her coaching expertise to the Royal Bees and ever since has helped the team to fine-tune their game with the exposure series providing them the avenue to test their skills against players abroad.

She said, “I’m looking for high quality competition to test the group and to expand their skills. Singapore is closer and they have good teams there. Melbourne is the pinnacle. They have the best teams.

“During that time since July, I think the team has regained their fitness and skills. With the Netfit team, I guess it is the third tour series to really test us.”

With the absence of a competitive league typically practised by developed netballing nations, the major issue for the Royal Bees is the lack of matches. Without the high level of intensity and competition, it is easy to lag behind once they perform at an international level.

The exposure series, however infrequent, will be seen as the best platform in putting their tools to practice especially what they have taken into the game from Searle’s coaching.

“The problem is we don’t have the competition in Brunei. They don’t play regular competitions so we need to find good competition somewhere.

“We don’t have competition every week and we need to be match-fit.

“We’re only competing periodically overseas. Are we improving in those months in between?”

The netball team has been training hard twice a day and rests on Sunday.

Searle described her charges as fit and skilful and believes that they have improved enormously.

“I think the SEA Games will be the hardest for a long time for netball. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have all improved as well. Singapore and Malaysia have just recently played in the World Cup in England earlier this year.

“They (Singapore and Malaysia) have really been preparing for the World Cup and they’re still very good and experienced.”

Thailand have proven to be Brunei’s closest rivals in both the Asian Netball Championships and the SEA Games, a rivalry which was first fostered during the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore. Since 2015, both countries have met each other four times with Thailand winning all of their clashes.

“However, the challenge of even securing bronze might be greater than in previous years with Searle noting the improvement of the Philippines, a team that Brunei have been rather comfortable to play against in the previous two SEA Games editions.

“Thailand have been improving the whole time but I think the biggest improvement might be the Philippines.” The Philippines, or known as the Siklab Pilipinas have recruited tall basketball players and they have transferred their skills to netball. With efforts of uplifting the standard of netball both the national and international scene, the Philippines have entered the race for bronze especially backed with a strong home support.

“They are an unknown quantity so no one has really seen them or what they can do yet so I have not had any vision of what they are about. But, all I’m hearing is they have improved a lot so that makes four very hard teams to beat to get a medal for netball.” The Philippines’ coaching presence has also been boosted with the inclusion of Singapore’s experienced assistant coach Jolynn Loo Yi Lin. “I know they have a Singapore coach there for 12 months,” said Searle. The head coach elaborated that their biggest disadvantage lies in their height, adding the need to be smart with the ball.

Most nations have been looking to recruit tall players, a move which has proved effective evident with Malaysia’s height with their attacking front. “I think we’re at a disadvantage because of our height. We have a small team and these days, everybody is recruiting six-foot plus players to play.

“We need to beat them with speed but at the end of the day, we still are going to be at a disadvantage. It is how smart we are with the ball and what we can do with it. But I certainly think we improved a lot and anything can happen on the day for sure.” The core of the national team has been retained with players from the bronze-winning team in 2015 still very much going strong.

Searle shared that goal defender Nursyuhaidah Fahriyana is one of their key players in the team adding that she is the tallest member in the team. The head coach expressed hopes of the national star to shine in the international scene. “We are hoping for big things from her.” The national team also saw the return of Siti Norsaihah binti Mohammad Adi Najmi, having missed the 2017 edition in Kuala Lumpur, and Nurafiqah Samat. They have probably been training for three months so I would have liked another three more months with them again. But, they earned their spot in the 12 so they worked very hard.

“Fizah (Nur Hafizah binti Haji Abdul Sidek) has been training extremely well as well. She plays as a goal shooter.

“It will be Her Royal Highness Princess Fadzilah Lubabul Bolkiah’s first SEA Games. She was injured in the last SEA Games so she has worked very hard in her fitness and recovery. She is excited to get out there for her first SEA Games.

“Lisha (Dayangku Khalisha bin Pengiran Abdul Rahman) is running mid court for us. She is a very excellent and smart player. She is quick and skilful. I think if we can combine on the day, anything could happen.”

Under-21 team captain Alai, who is the youngest member of the squad, has been promoted into the senior setup having previously garnered international experience in the Asian Youth Netball Championships in Japan earlier this year.

“She did a fantastic job for us in Japan earlier this year and she earned her way into the senior team. She is still learning the game but she is a great athlete. She has some great skills and we’re hopeful for big things from her.” Searle emphasised the need to play a smart game and spoke of her knowledge of the Asian playing style in netball. “The Asian teams play zone defence and we need to be smart about not bring the ball high for the zone to intercept. Our use of the fake will help us and also our strong drive and speed to get through the zone.

“We need to retain possession with some fast skills work and of course we need to be accurate under the post. We have many strategies to explore but once again we got to keep the ball rolling fast. We have to move the ball like the Australians.”

Brunei ran close against Thailand in one of the quarters when the pair met in a major competition but the gap widened drastically with Searle indicating a lack of competitive fixtures. “What match fitness means every second you’re out of the court, you are either playing tough defence or strong attack. It is a mental thing as well. We just need to play regularly to know what match fitness is for the full 60 minutes and not just one quarter.”

During the Royal Bees’ exposure series in Melbourne, they played five games and competed against one of the top teams who turned out to be the best junior team throughout the state of Victoria.

Searle, who won the World Championship with the Australian national team in 1983 said, “They are on the verge of international representation. They are extremely good so it is a pinnacle for us in the end. We started off a little bit slow and at the end of the quarter we were still not winning but we were improving a lot in just that one game.”

In Singapore, the Royal Bees recorded two victories and were really competitive. “We were there last year for the ANCs and this year we played the same team again. We improved our scores against them this year. We played our 15 players which does affects the score but we need to test everybody in the squad to see who can stand up under the pressure,” said the head coach.

There are several players who can play multiple positions including Zuraidah and Nurafiqah such is the flexibility of the squad.