KOTA KINABALU: The rusty Rhinos were held to a two-all draw by Kota Belud Selection in a friendly match played at the Kota Belud District Council field on Sunday.
It was defender Mafry Ballang who saved them from the blushes as they fought their way back after trailing to the amateur Kota Belud side.
The match played in conjunction with the Kota Belud Tamu Besar celebration saw the Rhinos go down 2-0 at half time.
Caretaker coach Burhan Ajui when contacted told the New Sabah Times Sport that it was not a bad game despite the result showing otherwise.
“We are not looking for any excuses, but the condition of the field did not help us at all. The field was muddy and slippery due to rain earlier on, and it took quite a while before we could settle down.
“We were a bit too cautious in the first half, and I can understand why they did that. Obviously they were trying to avoid any injuries.”
Sabah started the game with Zainizam Marjan and Restu Emat in attack, while Zuraindey Jumai and Radzi Hussin manned the centre of midfield, with Mohd Farid Saibun on the left and Azrul Ejati Damsah on the right.
Henry Parsi and Mafry started at the centre of the defence with Zulamri Muhammad on the right and Gasili Pengalot on the left.
But after the break, Burhan said he switched to an attacking game and brought in Salvester Sindeh for Henry, while Joey Ryan Gundok and Hardy Charles Parsi came in for Radzi and Farid respectively.
Meanwhile, team manager Rahman Zakaria said it was not the right time to speak on the team’s performance just yet, adding that it was still early days.
“The players have started training and I can see some encouraging progress. Obviously there is room for improvement.
“I believe the squad will get into full gear when the team embark on full training from Nov 3,” he said.
Rahman’s assessment of the friendly game in which Sabah fielded all local players, found there were various areas that need to be strengthened.
“Defence is one area and we are also looking into several positions that we need to beef up. We will look for the players who can improve the team and of course we will give local footballers priority.
All local players started training under Burhan Ajui on Oct 13 in addition to several former players including Mafry, Gasili Pengalot and Restu Emat.
One player missing from training was striker Bobby Gonzales who is believed to be looking for a new experience elsewhere next year.
“We want him in the squad for next season but on the other hand we will not stop him from making his own decision,” added Rahman.
Another former player – Zaykiel Leong – was supposed to be with the team, but due to work commitment, he skipped the trip to Kota Belud.
On the local imports, Rahman said Wong Sai Kong has stated his commitment to the State team.
He was also hopeful that Chow Chee Weng would continue to don the State’s colours, although the former was made to understand that the hard-running midfielder has caught the eyes of another team.
“Chan Wing Hong who was with Perak last season will also try his luck with Sabah,” revealed Rahman.
Rahman reiterated that the door is not closed on former players or local imports to join Sabah but first they must prove their worth.
He also revealed that there are several coaches who have stated their interest in leading the team next season but no decision has been made yet.
Meanwhile, the Rhinos are expected to take part in an invitational football tournament in Labuan to further enhance their preparations.
“We are also planning to visit various districts in the State which will be our preparations-cum-talent scouting programme in November,” he said.
The new Malaysian League season which will start in January will feature all-Malaysian players after the FA of Malaysia’s (FAM) decision to implement the “no foreign players” ruling.
Sabah will be playing in the Premier League, equivalent to the Second Division, for the fourth consecutive season.