In their inaugural crack at the Asian AFL Championships, the Cambodian Eagles tasted triumph once and put up some stiff resistance against the league’s powerhouse clubs from Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam in Bangkok at the weekend.
After a disappointing two-goal loss to arch rival Vietnam in a low-scoring, tightly contested game, the Eagles soared to victory against fellow newcomers Macau, thrashing the opposition by five goals before suffering two admirable losses against the league’s stalwarts.
Singapore took out the main prize in a dominant display against Hong Kong, while the Eagles finished eighth out of 11 teams.
Eagles coach David Murphy said after the championships that the most important thing was that players who had never played senior football, including Cambodians, had competed fiercely.
“[For] a club that has gone on from nothing 18 months ago to play in the Asian Championships, we finished eighth, we had a win, we were very competitive and we stuck to our game plan and people played good football,” he said.
Murphy said a sustained, grassroots approach to developing the game in the Kingdom would be vital for their future because the transitory nature of expats made it difficult to develop a well-integrated squad over the long term.
“Over the next 12 months, [our aim] is to bring Auskick to the kids, to the Cambodian kids, so they can learn to play AFL. That’s where the powerhouse of Cambodia will come from,” the coach said.
On Saturday, a glimpse of the Eagles’ prospective talents came in the form of explosive kickboxer turned tuk-tuk driver Um Sy, who came off the bench to har-ass anything that moved in the forward line with his defensive pressure.
Playing four matches in the crushing heat of a sunny Bangkok day, the Eagles rode bumps, held tackles and at times played with finesse, often against clubs with decades more experience.
From the onset, ruckman Steve Higgins dominated the hitouts while onballer Liam Costello kept the contest hot in the engine room.
“Steve Higgins, who made the All-Asian team, was probably the standout ruckman on the day. Liam Costello was also hard at it all day,” Murphy said.
Stuart Raetz was brilliant, robbing his forward line opponents of any chance to mark, his performance diminished only by some errant kicking, while Rory Hunter was a reliable presence at centre half-back.
Murphy said the Eagles could look forward to the Indochina Cup in Laos in November where they will take on Vietnam, Thailand and the hosts. They will try to go one step further than their runners-up spot last year.
“Our stocks are rising as they say. We’re a real chance to take out that cup,” Murphy said.