Hisham Abdeen (Pic by Eshan Dasanayaka)

The former rugby star says that though he prayed to God before a game, he also made it a point to play his heart out

The word extraordinary isn’t the best word to describe former rugby star Hisham Abdeen. The ideal word for that is ‘legend’. Even now Abdeen commands the respect of both players and rugby administrators. At present, he is a member of the national rugby selection committee and is actively involved in making contributions to the game which made him a household name in the sports scene.

He speaks fondly of the times when the game was possibly the most popular discipline in an island which is now so obsessed with cricket. “The stands were packed during domestic matches and Havelocks Sports Club could accommodate 10,000 spectators at matches,” is how Abdeen began an interview with Nation. “Without spectators there is no rugby. Without good rugby there are no spectators,” reflected Abdeen.

Many believe he was God’s gift to rugby. Abdeen acknowledged the fact that he did pray to God before matches. But he was quick to point out that despite the talent he had, he made it a point to play his heart out. “I never had an off-day on the field,” said the third row forward.

He was a genius on the rugby field. Experts have best described Abdeen as a player who had an acute sense for tries. As a schoolboy, during his last season for Isipathana College, he scored 25 tries. He was a try scoring machine and the dream player any coach could have in the starting line-up. “My coaches allowed me to play my natural game. However, I made it a point to be a team man. I have played as hooker, second row, scrum half, prop forward, full back, centre and full back when the need arose. I was a utility player and also a fitness fanatic,” said Abdeen who now runs his own rugby academy.

He stood out not only because of the skills he displayed on the field. He was a super human being and a player who didn’t have any attitude. If a spectator waved at him during a match he would respond. “After all, those spectators came to see me playing and why not acknowledge their presence,” asked Abdeen. For the record, he was voted as the most popular rugby player on more than five occasions.

As a selector, he observes that the islanders have made great improvement in the sevens version of the game. “Players in all age groups including the seniors have improved. The players are bigger now. But I must caution them that getting too big would have its negative effects. Then you will have to work extra hard on the field. One needs to be mobile on the field,” he said adding that it is okay to see 100 kg players on the field today.

He recalled, in between laughs, how he insisted on his plate of rice before practice or a game of rugby. “I just had to have a full plate of rice or otherwise I had no energy to play rugby,” he said.

Does like the rugby that’s played at present? Abdeen says that the rugby witnessed now is predictable. “There is little excitement unlike my time. Today they talk about a game plan all the time. You must have a game plan alright, but players must be encouraged to engage in tactical play. Sometimes your game plan is to execute a line out drive, but what if you lose that line out? You have to be creative in certain situations,” he said.

Abdeen was the star in the 80s and early 90s in the domestic rugby scene. But he took this opportunity to mention the fact that there were legends in the likes of Jeff De Jong, Jeffrey Yu and Frank Hubert at Havelocks playing as regulars when he joined the park club. “I had no option, but to start as a second row forward. Jeffrey Yu then retired and gave his blessings for me take over his place in the third row,” recalled Abdeen.

He doesn’t much fancy the attitude of certain club players who at times make themselves unavailable for national duty. “The biggest thrill came for me when I represented the country. I simply loved wearing the jersey with the elephant symbol,” said Abdeen whose crowning moment in the game came when the team he led at the 1984 Hong Kong Sevens bagged the Bowl Championship.

Memories of his exploits at rugby still linger in our minds. He showed the same enthusiasm to be out there; whether he was the ball career, last line of defense, place kicker or for that matter a marked man. Abdeen knew the game like the lines in the palm of his hand. This is why one journalist dubbed him the bionic man!

Former Sri Lanka cricketer David Heyn (left) is seen distributing an award at a rugby tournament conducted by Hisham Abdeen’s rugby academy
Former Sri Lanka cricketer David Heyn (left) is seen distributing an award at a rugby tournament conducted by Hisham Abdeen’s rugby academy