The team that could and inspired others: A Ryan’s Legacy

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There was a period a few decades ago when one of the first things they taught a 13-year-old freshie at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) was to play rugby.

It was one of the four major sports, apart from football, hockey and cricket, at this boarding school that for the first 60 years of its inception had only British headmasters.

It was the last of these expats, Irishman and historian (Dato’) Neil J. Ryan, who introduced the game there in 1956, a few months after he was transferred from Ipoh’s Anderson School. It was rather late because the schools in those days had many British teachers. The sport gained momentum as the students readily accepted rugby, thanks largely to assistance teacher-coach Mr. (Dato’) Leong Siew Loong. MCKK began to play rugby competitively in 1957 and within a couple of years had reached a reasonably high standard. Quite soon after the team began to defeat schools that had been playing rugby for many years.

NJ Ryan was first a History teacher and later headmaster of MCKK. He was the last expatriate to head the school and probably any public school in the country. Mr Ryan shall be remembered with affection and respect, but more affection then respect for he was the first iconic symbol of authority in life and the Malay Collegian are the better for it. If not for Irishman Neil Joseph Ryan, the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) would not be renowned as a rugby powerhouse among Asian schools.

If the British has ever given MCKK anything of any lasting value it was when they sent Mr Ryan as a young soldier to Malaysia to serve during the Emergency fighting the communists. When that soldier finished his tour of duty, he returned to England, and pursued a degree in history at Bristol University, London. Upon graduation, he was among three Britons who returned to Malaya in 1953 to serve with the Colonial Education Service. He chose to come back to Malaysia and eventually started his life at MCKK as its headmaster, to bestow upon all of college boys who had the privilege of knowing him a lifelong kinship that transcends time and distance.

Just a year after starting out with a developmental Under-15 team, the school had its first senior First XV, with many of the players were still below 16. In 1960, it was a proud year for MCKK Rugby too – the school won the Malayan Schools Seven Aside Tournament in KL which ended with MCKK A beating MCKK B in the finals at Stadium Merdeka. Their treat was a grand (by standards of those days) briyani dinner at Kassim Restaurant on Batu Road (then) – hosted of none other than Mr Ryan himself, who believed in rewarding achievements. The Rugby boys were known to be Ryan’s boys (Budak Ryan) in Ryan’s Rugby Academy (RRA) and they had ‘preferential’ treatment in terms of diet (like getting that extra soft boiled egg for breakfast) and prefects’ appointment.

Within a short few years, the reputation of the MCKK Rugby teams had spread far enough to put fear into schools that had dominated the game till then and by 1960 – just four years after the game was introduced there – the team became one of the strongest in Perak and the country. The year 1960 was also when the school started its annual home-and-away game with Thailand’s prestigious Vajiravudh College, another boarding school that perennially provides players for their national team.

It became a powerhouse in Rugby Union during the 1960s and still has one of the best rugby school teams in the nation. Nicknamed ‘All-Blacks’ after the New Zealand national team for its all black strip, though the team only performed the own Haka before matches in the 80’s (though it was believed that there was an attempt to create their own Haka by Joe Baker (C’66) which then turned to be the war cry ‘Bung Wak’ of the cheering squad that accompanied the team in matches). It has held a match series against the Vajiravudh College of Thailand since 1960. In odd-numbered years, the match is held in Kuala Kangsar. In even-numbered years, it is held in Bangkok. Mr Ryan was instrumental in organising and initiating the Annual MCKK – Vajiravudh College rugby match.

The Vajiravudh College (or Vaji for short) is a private all-boys boarding school located at Bangkok, Thailand. The school was established by Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua – King Rama VI who is also known as King Vajiravudh. It was originally named the ‘Royal Pages College’ (in Thai: Ma-had-lek-luang) then the king shifted Thai King College (TKC) students to Royal Pages College and renamed it as Vajiravudh College. The school’s main sport is rugby, which it is dominant in Thai’s under-15, under-17 and under-19 rugby tournaments for years.

The reason that rugby becomes school’s main sport is that Phra Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, King Rama VI thought that rugby would teach men sportsmanship, would teach them how to be a gentleman as rugby is described from the English as “Sport played in heaven”. For the records, Vajiravudh College has beaten MCKK in all the Annual rugby matches since its inaugural match in 1960, except for 1963 (score 39-0), 1999 (score 13-7 ) and 2013 (score 31- 10) on home ground.

The target for the MCKK All- Blacks now is to beat Vaji in Bangkok. The best year was perhaps in 1963 when the school trounced Vajiravudh 39-0 (six goals, 2 tries and one penalty in Kuala Kangsar). After that historic first blood game, the MCKK All-Blacks went on to win matches against the best international schools from Zahira College, Sri Lanka (score 14-11) and Raffles Institution, Singapore. To the 1963 team, the sky was the limit.

The 1963 MCKK All-Blacks was formidable as they won all their matches against not only schools but against state and club teams. They were perhaps the best rugby and sports team ever produce by any school in the country in the first 100 years of the school. Apart from thrashing Vaji by the biggest margin, the team was undefeated and went on to become the Malaysian Schools Champion apart from winning other open tournaments.

Most of the players represented Perak Combined Schools and the Perak State while still in the College. That team became the standard bearer for other ensuing MCKK All-Blacks. Further, most of them went to play rugby for their universities, clubs and other states whilst seven out the fifteen went on to become Malaysian Internationals. One of them even had the honour of becoming the Malaysian national rugby coach.

All the achievements were coupled with the fact that they passed their exams, gained tertiary qualification and had successful careers such as corporate leaders, politician, civil servants, doctors, lecturers, educators, banker, planter, engineer as well as in police, custom, veterinary service. And many of them still play competitive golf against the Vajiravudh compatriots to settle old scores and heal old scars! They still remained life-long friends.

The historic GAME that become the standard for MCKK rugby (as reported in the Straits Times on 8/9/1963 under the heading “Bangkok Tourists’ First Reverse” against Vaji at the rugby field of MCKK was played on Friday, 6th September 1963 and witnessed by the then Sultan of Perak, Almarhum Sultan Idris Iskandar Al-Mutawakkil Alallahi Shah II, an illustrious Old Boy himself. The kick off time was at 5.15 pm. The MCKK All- Blacks wore white jerseys with black trucks and the Vaji boys wore all dark blue jerseys with matching dark blue trunks.

The MCKK team easily trounced the Vaji boys 39-0 and showed all round superiority and led 11-0 at halftime. Perak state player, Adnan Maaruf, who captained the College side, played extremely well to convert six tries. Other scorers for the MCKK All-Blacks were right wing Mohamed Hamdan Azizi (3 tries), left wing Azizan Abbas (3 tries) and scrum-half Ahmad Burhan (2 tries).

The team played so hard and engrossed in the game till some even lost count of the score. Mr Ryan was so elated by the victory that he called a special assembly the next day and coffered the College’s Colours to Megat Najmuddin and Azizan Razak for their outstanding performance on the field the day before. The coach- teacher Mr. (Dato) Leong Siew Loon (Malaysia National) was delighted both the victory of the team and him winning his ‘kutu’ (ponzi) betting amongst the teachers.

There is no doubt that the 1963 players were a special team and they went on to become competent in Malaysia and Singapore. They not only excelled in the 15’s game but they also won the 7’s title – the national school’s championships, the Perak state completion and masquerading as the Dindings club in the Selangor state competition. And they were all still schoolboys.

It was the team that believed in themselves, a team that could and a team to inspire and to follow. This team believed rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen and they acted as gentlemen in the field. The team trained hard, they played hard and they were skilful. The sense of camaraderie they forged as a team carried on to this day and even created an everlasting friendship with the opposing Vaji counterparts. Many from this team later went to play international in the national or club circuit. The first MCKK victorious team against Vaji were honoured as the Rugby Centennial team at MCOBA Annual Dinner in 2003 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of rugby achievements.

So, to Dato’ Adnan Maaruf (team captain), Dato’ Dr. Abdul Aziz Mahmud, Dato’ Dr Mohd Adam Harun, Dato’ Mohammed Hamdan Hazizi, Dato’ Zulkifly Mustapha, Rozalli Nordin, Azizan Razak, Megat Ismail Abdul Hamid, Ismail Ibrahim, Tan Sri Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas, Arwah Halil Abdul Jabar, Mohd Nor Kadir, Mohamed Zain Mohamed Yusoff, Dato’ Annuar Maaruf, Muslim Mohamed, Ahmad Burhan Zainal Mokhtar and Azizan Abbas, we salute all of you as the Rugby Centennial MCKK team. You showed others that you could and inspire others to follow and emulate.

The prowess of the MCKK All-Blacks was impressive to say the least in the national schools sevens, MCKK won almost every year from 1960 to 1966, with both their teams meeting in the final on more than one occasion. At worst, two of their teams would be in the semis.

Ryan retired from the school in late 1965 and not long after, MCKK’s rugby standard began its slow decline, the more obvious being recorded from the mid-70s. They lost for the first time against local schools in 1967, not once but twice, the first coming at home.

Losing only one match a year cannot be that bad but not for these boys who lived and breath rugby. In Perak, the place at the top during this period was taken over by Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman of Ipoh, another boarding school that was opened in 1957.

Such was MCKK’s school’s prowess in rugby that so many of its former players turned out for the state and national teams for about a decade from the late 60s. A few outstanding ones played for Perak state while still in school and one – Sabahan Ibrahim Ahmad, a fullback – was named in the wider training squad for the national team while only 17. He was discouraged from going only because of the MCE due a couple of months later. During the 1974 inter-varsity games hosted by Universiti Malaya, four of the six teams were led by former MCKK players. In 1980, the MCKK All-Blacks again became the Malaysian Schools Champion for rugby.

But that’s all in the past. There are now more schools playing rugby. No matter how hard it tried, once even having a Kiwi coach, MCKK has never come close to regaining its position. Not only has it failed to be at the top nationally; many a time the team could not even be the best in Perak. At times, they even lost to the local rivals, Clifford School.

The old boys later realised that a more comprehensive approach was needed. That was how the All Blacks Revival (ABR) programme came into being in 2010 under the auspices of the Malay College Old Boys Association (MCOBA) in the effort to regain the glory days of rugby for MCKK. The culmination of the efforts was rewarded with beating Vajiravudh College on rugby field of MCKK on 2013 with a score of 31- 10.

The MCKK Premier 7s was then organised and became an annual event for Rugby Sevens and gaining recognition from local and overseas school teams. The Championship Cup was named ‘Piala NJ Ryan’ in honour of the Irishman historian cum Headmaster that stated the rugby ball rolling. The Cup in the form of stylish rugby ball was donated by the Class of 1957 or the Merdeka Boys. Kudos to the people involved in organising it and also to the many sponsors too but the ultimate test will be the performance of the MCKK team in the 15 a-side.

Even if the Sevens get bigger in terms of participation, crowd support, media coverage and sponsorship, the ABR can only claim to be a success when the school’s First XV emulates the successes of their predecessors from 1960 to around 1975.

Dato’ NJ Ryan was the ‘father’ to many Kolej boys and he was also father of the development of Rugby in MCKK and the promoter of rugby in Perak and Selangor when he helmed the Rugby Union of the two States in his illustrious career. There were many other innovations he introduced to the college which made it the premier school. He was strict but fair.

He will always have time to listen to his students. He never neglected his duties and was always there when they needed him. He will always be remembered for that entire he had done for the college. He was a history teacher but he made history for rugby in a school which he headed. His services will always be remembered and revered.

He left Malaysia in 1966 and eventually settled down in Australia. He took to writing books, among them The Last Expatriate (on life with MCKK) and several historical editions. He went on to become the managing director of publishing company Longman, which produced many school textbooks.

Even after having left the country, Ryan often returned on many occasions to attend receptions organised by his former students, the last being in 2009 when a group of them threw a birthday party for him in Petaling Jaya. At that function, former MCKK headboy and 1964 rugby captain Datuk Dr Abdul Aziz Mahmood, 66, had this to say of their former teacher: “He was like a father to us, shaping our lives and teaching us to be leaders. He had such a great personality.” The current Life President of MCOBA, Tan Sri Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas added: “He knows his 600-odd students not only by sight but also amazingly could call them by name.”

His presence is always with the College boys in Malaysia. When they meet and talk of Kolej days, Mr Ryan will always be mentioned in the same breath as rugby and the personal anecdotes of being caned by him for their youthful indiscretions.

For all his contributions, Ryan was made a Dato’ when he was conferred the Datuk Paduka Mahkota Perak title by the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah in April 2010. Dato’ Neil Jonathan Ryan died in Melbourne, Australia, on 22 April 2011 after a fatal heart attack. He was 81.

Dato’ Ryan leaves behind wife Josephine, two sons, a grand-daughter and a legion of disciples among MCKK old boys. Often referred to as everyone’s headmaster, he shall always be best remembered for bringing rugby glory to the school. He was regarded as the ‘the special one’ that took the MCKK All-Blacks team to the pinnacle of inter-school rugby in the early 1960s. He also left a legacy and dedicated a special scrapbook of his days in MCKK now kept and treasured in the MCOBA Archives.

These days, of course, the memories will include the last time each of College boys met him. And these stories are repeated year after year at the Old Boys’ Dinner, and again and again at other gatherings, formal and informal. Some of the anecdotes get passed down to younger old boys and have become legend.

They talk about his love for rugby and the school’s victory over the Vajiravudh College team (of Thailand) during his time (1963), and about his Jaguar, his near fatal accident, his surprise night checks at the dormitories, and how expertly he held the cane and gave them the beating of their life even with a thick book pressed between the side of his chest and the caning arm – as per regulation.

A film or a book should be produced or written to record all the outstanding achievements of ‘The team that could’ centering around the story and exploits of an Irishman who aspired and inspired Malay schoolboys who was coached by a Chinese teacher to become bigger that what they were in the game of Rugby. In return, they turned up as men with a sense of responsibility to things greater than themselves. Any takers, anyone? Writers? Film Producers?

Dato’ NJ Ryan always believed that the most valuable player for MCKK in winning the state rugby tournament would be celebrated as much as the student achieving straight as in the examinations. Aspiring school-level speakers and debaters would receive similar support from the school as its best academic students. Success and achievements came in different forms and the students charted their own path.

Above all, they were taught that any team could only progress so far if they were divided. Leadership, teamwork and cultural integration were essential components of the experience. The camaraderie established transcended petty squabbles – a source of countless jokes when reminiscing – which became parlayed to greater significance two to three decades later as the students matured to become industry leaders and ministers. This is what we should emulate for the future of our children.

BUNG WAK BUNG WEK WEK!
BUNG KAK BUNG KEK KEK!

#NB

So for the current MCKK All-Blacks team who is in the finals of the Malaysia Airports Chairman’s Challenge Trophy on this 13th May 2017 at UIA vs Victoria Institution, all the best and good luck! May the unlucky 13th be not with you. You showed great fighting spirit beating the Bogey boys from STAR in the semi/finals after a late comeback.

Always remember in the words of a member of the Centennial Team of 1963, Tan Sri Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas:

“We want them to win! Main mati mati! Get them to be in ‘the zone’ – total focus during the game with as little mistakes as possible. Think, think, think!”

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