Image: Duke Krishnan / Facebook
We all know about sports like badminton, football and basketball because most of us grew up playing these in schools or at the park near our homes. And badminton is practically a national sport for Malaysians, so it is a given to know the basics.
However, not many people are aware about the rugby scene in Malaysia.
Rugby has always been the sport that is mistaken for American football, which, by the way, are two different gameplays. We won’t delve too much into that for now because we’re not here to give you a Pendidikan Jasmani
In case you missed it, Malaysia won the country’s first ever gold in rugby at the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games last year.
More than 10,000 fans gathered at the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) Stadium to cheer the team on as they beat Singapore 22-7 in the rugby sevens competition finals.
Besides the fans, there was also one other person supporting the national rugby team from more than 5,000km away. His name is Dinesvaran “Duke” Krishnan.
Duke is also a professional rugby player who is already making a name for the country in Japan.
Standing tall at 198cm, he currently plays for Yamaha Jubilo, a rugby union team based in Shizuoka, Japan. The team is also part of Japanese rugby’s Top League, making Duke the second Malaysian to ever play in a professional rugby league.
The Rugby Life
Growing up in Sungai Petani, Kedah, Duke was always fascinated by sports and the life of a professional athlete.
“I think being an athlete is amazing because technically, people pay you to be fit and healthy,” he said.
As shallow as that thought may sound, for young Duke then, it was the one and only dream he had. So he started playing football and hockey during primary school.
When he moved to Penang for his secondary school education, little did he know that it was going to be the start of something big.
Duke was exposed to rugby at the age of 13 and he began playing the sport more and more. He even represented the school and district at the time.
However, he stopped playing rugby after a while because he saw no progression in the sport at the time, so he decided to continue on with football and volleyball instead.
Several years down the road, shortly after Duke completed secondary school in 2007, he bumped into an old rugby mate who told him that they were looking for more players to represent Penang at the Sukan Malaysia (SUKMA) games.
Obviously, the one thing that stood out about him back then (and even till today) was his height. His friend convinced him to join the Bukit Mertajam Rhinos and that was when he started fully committing to rugby.
Later that same year, Duke was called to try out for the Under-20 national team after being spotted by the national coach. Needless to say, he got selected and went on to represent Malaysia at the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) Under-20 tournament in Brunei.
At that point in time, the young teen had nothing else going for him besides rugby. So when COBRA, which stands for the Combined Old boys Rugby Association, also called him to join the league, he naturally said yes and became a part of them for seven years.
Three years after joining COBRA, Duke got selected to join the senior national rugby sevens team and participated in tournaments in Shanghai, Thailand and Brunei.
Now, it sure sounds like Duke already had his rugby career going for him so far, doesn’t it? But that wasn't the case.
Despite having participated in numerous international tournaments, he didn't possess the right skills and knowledge in the sport. He had only joined the national team for runs and fitness training every day, and that was it.
It wasn’t until the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi that finally changed the game for him.
Although the Malaysia team had suffered a huge loss when they played against Uganda at the Games, it was at that exact moment when he was running out in the field when the fire in him started to grow.
He told himself not to take the defeat too hard because it just meant that there was more room for improvement.
The Road to Japan
In 2011, Duke met a man named Marc Le who became an instrumental part in his career.
Le, who also happens to be the first and only other Malaysian who plays in a professional rugby league, introduced Duke to his agent in Japan.
The agent showed his performance to several clubs in Japan and Duke eventually caught the attention of Yamaha Jubilo, especially after he helped COBRA win the Malaysia Super League champion title again in 2012.
However, winning over Yamaha Jubilo was only half the battle because he needed to convince another party – his family.
When Duke first started playing rugby, his parents did not think too much of it because they thought it was just a regular hobby. But they soon realised that he wasn't doing anything else other than rugby, and they were not happy about it.
“My parents started to complain, ‘You’re already 25. How long do you want to continue playing around like kids?’ They wanted me to get a proper job,” he shared.
As the youngest and only son in the family, all the hope and pressure was on Duke. They were concerned that going to Japan would yield the same results as his rugby career in Malaysia which was not progressing.
But after much persuasion, he finally got his parents’ blessings to go to Japan and officially began his professional rugby career.
Duke spent his first year with the development team because he struggled to keep up with the Japanese’ standard of rugby which is very different to the rugby he was used to in terms of fitness, speed, game pace, to name a few.
To further help him progress, the coach sent him to train with the Blue Bulls in South Africa, the country with some of the world’s biggest legends in professional rugby.
“We grew up looking up to world-class rugby players like Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. When I was training there, these players were actually there as well playing with the club!” he exclaimed.
“So I had the chance to talk to them personally and ask them for more tips and advice about professional rugby.”
You can tell by his excitement that the two months spent in Johannesburg was one of the best times of his life. Not only was it a dream come true for the rookie player, training with the Blue Bulls also taught him one of the most important lessons he needed in rugby.
Instead of just improving in his physical skills, Duke grew stronger mentally.
“The coach and senior players advised me not to follow what other players are doing and just be myself because I have my own unique style that others don’t,” he said.
“They told me, ‘Just be you. If the coach wants you, he will keep you.’ And I finally realised, why should I try so hard to be somebody else?”
So, Duke returned to Japan with a fresh new mindset.
And guess what? He made it to the second season as a starting member of Yamaha Jubilo and he has been with the team for five years ever since.
In 2015, what looked like Duke’s most successful year in his professional career so far, Yamaha Jubilo all the way to the finals at Japan’s Top League and was crowned the ‘Team of the Season’.
And better yet, later that year, the team won the 52nd All Japan Rugby Football Championship after 54 years!
Although Duke was part of the team with this achievement, he felt that he was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time when they won the title.
“They did the job, they were the ones who brought the team all the way up. So this win was definitely for all the Yamaha Jubilo players in the last 54 years,” he expressed.
The National Pride
Despite being part of the Yamaha Jubilo, Duke’s heart remained in Malaysia and he has always had a place in the national rugby team.
And when Malaysia won the Asia Rugby Championship Division champion title for the first time in 2016, it was a completely different feeling for Duke.
“For every rugby player or athlete, it doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone in international clubs, it’s always a different pride when you come home and play for the national team,” he shared.
“For me, playing for the national team is like serving my country because it is my call and duty for Malaysia.”
The Fire for Rugby
The reason Duke stuck to rugby instead of the other sports he had toyed with was the lesson he learned inside and outside the field.
The number one lesson rugby has taught him is humility.
A clear example is the position of the referee in the field. Referee is the king in rugby. When you’re in the field, you’re not allowed to talk to the referee as long as you’re not the team captain.
And even if you are the captain, you cannot disagree with the referee because whatever he says goes. So don’t even think about getting into arguments about penalties and whatnot.
“This really taught me to control myself, to be patient and not to act out of emotions,” Duke said.
Besides that, playing in international players also taught him to be more focused and professional in the field. Whatever happens in the field, you have to react fast, make split-second decisions and always have your teammates’ backs.
Of course, living in a foreign land that does not share the same food and language is no easy task. There were times when he struggled at the beginning because he missed home badly.
But Duke has never thought of giving up.
“Growing up and surrounding myself with positive people who constantly pushed me to try harder drives me to keep going, so I try to do the best I can every time I’m out in the field,” he said.
If anything, the only concern he has in his mind is planning for the future because he knows that rugby is not forever.
Duke, who will be turning 30 this May, plans to retire as a professional player when he is 33 or 34 years old.
His advice is to the new generation of aspiring sportsmen is to give your full commitment and don’t think about fame or glamour.
“Give your 100 per cent in whatever you do, and the world will notice.”